Managing expectations. It’s a concept that’s important for project professionals and also many other jobs. If the work we are doing is on track to deliver the expected results on the agreed dates, our managers and project stakeholders will be happy. If the work isn’t on track according to original expectations but is nevertheless going to meet the current expectations of our managers and project stakeholders, they will still be (relatively) happy.

However if we haven’t managed expectations and our stakeholders are expecting quality X on date Y, but find out a week before the deadline that we won’t be able to deliver anything on date Y, and will instead deliver quality X-10 on date Y+2 weeks, that is an unwelcome surprise that will cause a lot of problems. This post will explore ways we can ensure our stakeholders’ expectations are aligned with what we are delivering in a project.

Managed expectations vs Un-managed expectations

If a project is going to deliver late, this same project will be received completely differently depending on how the stakeholders’ expectations have been managed throughout the project. For example say the project is releasing software enhancements and the release date needs to be pushed back by a month. There are two senior executives with a high interest in the project. Stakeholder Adam as not been managed well, he wasn’t part of the project working group, didn’t receive status updates, had no idea that things were not on track. Stakeholder Bob was actively engaged, received status updates, knew the risks and issues and was told there was a chance of a delayed release.

The reactions of the two stakeholders upon hearing news of the delay would be completely different. Stakeholder Bob would understand the pressure the project team were under and would have planned for a delayed release. Stakeholder Adam on the other hand may be completely surprised and get very upset as he may have set things in motion to meet customers based on the project delivering on time.

How can we improve our ability to manage expectations?

By making it a regular habit to:

  1. Communicate with your stakeholders
  2. Communicate relevant information
  3. Actively monitor risks and issues and impacts to your stakeholders

What needs to be communicated to manage expectations?

  • Scope
  • Realistic delivery dates
  • Risks and issues
  • Relevant communications
  • Crisis management

Ensure scope is clear

At the commencement of a piece of work make sure you agree the scope with your stakeholders. If you’ve done this well, your stakeholders won’t get surprised by something being delivered that doesn’t include the features they were expecting. Through regular communications you’ll need to remind them of what is and isn’t in scope – this is managing the scope expectations.

Ensure delivery dates are realistic from the outset

Sometimes you may be tempted to just pick a date and say it’ll be ready by then. However this has the potential to set unrealistic expectations for your stakeholders in terms of the project timeline. To manage timeline expectations you’ll need to spend some time defining all the tasks that need to be completed to deliver the project and estimating the effort involved. This knowledge will help you and your stakeholders discuss realistic delivery dates. To continue managing timeline expectations you’ll need to review the timeline regularly and inform your stakeholders of changes.

Risks and issues

Managing your risks and issues throughout a project will also help you manage your stakeholder’s expectations. You’ll need to inform your stakeholders of any risks to delivery dates, costs, quality, scope, and risks to benefits of the project. Regular communication of these including your risk mitigation plans will help prepare your stakeholders for any issues that do occur. For example a delayed release date – if you’ve been managing expectations by making your stakeholders aware of the risks to the release date and what the available options were, your stakeholders won’t get surprises.

Keep communications relevant to the stakeholders – how it will impact them

When managing expectations you need to ensure communications to stakeholders are relevant. If your stakeholders are receiving loads of irrelevant emails, they will come to ignore these and will miss the important messages that were relevant to them. This undermines your ability to manage their expectations through communications. Hence it’s very important that you create your communications specifically for your target audience and be sure to highlight how it impacts them and their expectations.

In a crisis – present options for dealing with roadblocks

What if you release the new software on the planned date but there is a major bug? Here you would have to manage expectations in a crisis. You’ll need to tell your stakeholders exactly what is happening in a clear and simple way, how it impacts them, what the options are, and what your next steps will be.

How can you communicate it?

The above information can be communicated in different ways including setting up regular working groups with your project stakeholders, sending status reports or ad-hoc catchups. Spend some time on finding out who your stakeholders are, the types of information they are interested in and their preferences for receiving project communications.

You can use this information as the basis for a communications plan. Creating a communications plan will help you ensure your communications to your stakeholders are not just on an ad-hoc basis. This ensures the stakeholders are being engaged regularly which will make it easier to manage their expectations if and when something goes wrong.

What strategies have you used effectively to manage your stakeholders’ expectations?