Managing Project Expectations

Published on: May 11, 2005
Last Updated: May 11, 2005

Managing Project Expectations

Published on: May 11, 2005
Last Updated: May 11, 2005

Regardless of where you fall in your company’s food chain, managing expectations is the key to being successful and saving your sanity.

Let’s face it, everyone wants new systems and projects delivered yesterday, even if they don’t have a clue about the amount of work involved in delivering a quality system that aligns with critical business objectives.

I don’t know about you, but my schooling never included “Manage Expectations 101” and it hasn’t exactly been offered during training at any of the companies where I’ve worked. So why is it so important and what can you do about it?


Perception is reality and all IT projects are really just a reality that someone in the organization would like to see.

As a result, everything is really just made up — the deliverables, the timelines, and the expectations.

That doesn’t mean it’s not important and doesn’t have merit, it simply means that there is someone somewhere in the organization (maybe that someone is you) who is the pivotal person whose expectations you need to manage.

The good news is that project timelines aren’t based on the irrefutable laws of nature such as gravity, so there is always some wiggle room.

Your job is to manage your sphere of influence regarding the project; i.e., the piece of the pie that you can actually directly impact via your work responsibilities.

No one is immune from the need to manage expectations, it is only your place on the project food chain that defines at what level and how formally you need to manage these expectations.

To add some perspective to this nebulous expectation thing, let me give you some examples of situations that fall into the manage expectations category.

Some are obvious, and some are less obvious but equally important.

  • You’re a manager and need to formally agree to timelines and deliverables. You’re managing expectations of your customer, your management, and your team.
  • As a project manager, you need to formally manage the ongoing status and outstanding issues related to the project as it progresses. You’re managing the expectations of your management, your customer, and the people working for you.
  • As a developer, you need to manage your project leader’s expectations. You need to ensure the project lead is committing the team to deliverables that are realistic based on the actual work at hand. You’re the subject matter expert giving all the managers a sanity check.

The expectation continuum is fluid and constantly moving based on challenges that arise as you move along the timeline.

This means you need to be consciously managing expectations on a daily basis.

Six Keys To Successfully Managing Expectations

1. Know Your Capabilities

Like anything in life, it is important to understand what you (and your team) can bring to the table before committing to anything.

The principle of “know thyself” is very important. Know what you can deliver (even if it requires the help of some outside contractors) before you commit to anything.

Nothing spoils current and future relationships faster than saying “We can do that” and having that be entirely untrue.

2. Set Clearly Defined Expectations

Do not assume. You need to start the process of defining expectations early. Expectations include more than just the requirements for the system.

Expectations define how your team will work together as a group and with the customer.

It also addresses the often neglected but important pieces such as how and how often status will be reported, how progress will be measured, what happens if priorities shift, and how issues that arise will be handled, to name a few.

When defining expectations, resort back to the SMART rule of goal setting: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound. Most importantly, make sure all parties are in agreement with what the expectations are from all parties. Again, perception is reality.

3. Educate and Empathize

Unless you educate your customer you cannot truly reach an agreement because not everyone will know what they are agreeing to.

While I am not saying you need to educate your customers in great detail about the technology and what is involved (they don’t care, otherwise they would’ve chosen to work in IT), you do need to educate them on the fact that completing their project is not something that can be done in the snap of your fingers.

Simply educate them so they can have a healthy appreciation of the work involved and the time and resources it takes to accomplish what they want.

That being said, you need to listen and empathize. It is equally important that you understand the business drivers behind the project and let the other person know that you are on board with how important the project is to them. Reassure them that you are committed to their success.

4. Be Realistic

Over the course of any project timeline, there will be challenges, unforeseen circumstances, and shifting priorities.

Build a little sanity into your timelines and the expectations you set with others. Practice under-promising and over-delivering. It is attractive to all involved and results in win-win outcomes.

5. Continuous Monitoring

Nothing is more damaging to reputations and business relationships than the dreaded big bad surprise. No one wants to be blindsided to find out key targets will not be met at the last minute.

It puts the customer in an awkward situation and damages your credibility and trust.

Continuously monitor the progress of the project and make sure you manage expectations on an ongoing basis.

Clearly set the status, communication, and issue reporting expectations early on and you will have a built-in system that supports you in managing expectations.

6. Communicate Early and Often

Communication is the key to it all. Communicate early and often; and if in doubt, communicate some more. Put a good communicator from your team in the role of interfacing with all the stakeholders.

Ideally you should use a single point of contact for project status discussions to minimize potential miscommunications and confusion.

Communication is a two-way street. You need to keep your finger on the pulse of what the customer is thinking as much as you report status to them.

System prototypes are an ideal way to communicate in a visual, hands-on way. Prototypes can help bridge the gap between what the customer says he wants versus what he really means he wants.

In the end you need to deliver what they really want if you are to be truly successful.

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Written by Bobby

Bobby Lawson is a seasoned technology writer with over a decade of experience in the industry. He has written extensively on topics such as cybersecurity, cloud computing, and data analytics. His articles have been featured in several prominent publications, and he is known for his ability to distill complex technical concepts into easily digestible content.