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Expectation Management: A Two-Headed Coin

by Dærick Gröss, March 31, 2008

When entering into any kind of agreement, there is an element that permeates the entire relationship from start to finish. It is key to feelings of satisfaction, obligation fulfillment, and success. But rather than being a double-edged sword dangling precariously over either or both parties, expectation can be an opportunity waiting to be acted on.

The Common Occurrence

More often than not, once an agreement is reached and a project/relationship is underway, one or both sides begin to demonstrate their true expectations. Regardless of what is in the fine print, there are expectations on points never discussed or considered, expectations refining what was agreed on, and sometimes even expectations that are in stark contrast to what was openly placed in the agreement.

When this happens, one or both sides frequently find that they are adjusting their efforts to meet the expectation of the other as opposed to what was specifically laid out as the plan. In an industry such as ours, where one side is a vendor providing service to a client, what often is the result is that projects evolve into trying to make the client "happy" instead of focusing on the project's goals. One may think these are essentially one in the same, but think about it for a moment and you will begin to see the difference. When a vendor caters to a client's expectations (actual or perceived) in an effort to keep them happy, the direction of the work changes. Hours of extra effort might be poured into superfluous things like prettier reports or working on side projects not initially negotiated.

This isn't to say that the blame lies with the client. In many cases, the client is not at fault or even aware of such derailment. An offhand comment or half-joking request can lead to a vendor eager to please biting off more than they should chew. It is true there are cases where sometimes a particular individual may be demanding, but whether it is due to an overbearing client or an over-achieving vendor, the bottom line is that the delivery and management of a project's expectations (and ultimately delivery) is the responsibility of both parties and needs to be constantly maintained.


That's a no-brainer, yet it is the first place where things go awry. "Well, maybe for everyone else" you might be thinking, but take a moment and consider your own projects. When did you last speak with your project team or main liaison and not just go over deliverables, measurables, actionables and any other jargonables you may have, but instead met for a project alignment meeting? Satisfaction does not always lay in merely the success of the goal, but the journey getting there as well. Meeting along the way to make sure that what was laid out initially is still valid, relevant, and being delivered to is critical in reaching a satisfaction that outlasts the life or duration of the project. If you are a vendor that would like repeat business or ongoing referrals, this is crucial.

Yet how many projects have you been involved in or seen that have hit a serious snag just for this very reason? Everyone involved knows better, but maybe it is just human nature that we don't always do what we need to when we should do it. And before anyone realizes the problem, things begin to derail.

So let's cover some pointers to help keep things on track. Many of these will sound rather obvious, but read through anyway and consider all of your projects/arrangements/relationships and see if one or more could benefit from some of the following points. Keep in mind you may be the 'client' in some cases and the 'vendor' in others, or it may be an equal partnership.

Expectation Management

The Handshake
This is where it all begins, where words are spoken, and excitement is high. This is a dangerous stage where expectations are wild and unrealistic promises are made, implied, and inferred. This is the best time to be clear and state exactly what you do and don't want and what you will and won't do. It doesn't have to be in writing yet, but get everyone's mind on the same page before the ink ever hits the paper. This is a golden opportunity that is all too frequently skipped.

The Contract
Obviously contracts are the binding agreement, filled out for both parties' protection. Do your contracts clearly state exactly what will and won't be done? Do they account for every aspect of the project including all the deliverables and abstractions? Realistically, it is likely it doesn't. Even the best contracts will miss unforeseen events, or not account for shifts in circumstances that can affect success or more importantly the expectations involved. Despite this, every contract should at least try. The reality is the contract really has nothing to do with expectation management, merely capturing the expectations at a given moment. The key is to make sure the major satisfiers are included for both sides.

The Kick-Off
The ink is drying, and it is time to get started. In many cases, a completely different set of people have now become involved. Some have buy-in, others may not. An entirely new dynamic has been brought into the mix, so this is arguably the most critical moment in a project's life cycle where expectation management is concerned. Here is where the client should state unequivocally what they expect to see/hear/receive/achieve with no ambiguities. Here is where the vendor should state without question what it is they will and will not be doing/delivering/working on. Both parties need to listen clearly and agree with what the other just stated and most importantly NOT CONTINUE until there is complete agreement from every person involved.

If there is a disagreement about any portion of a project, it is best to work it out ahead of time to give the project the best chance to run smoothly and avoid a crash in later stages. I challenge everyone reading to consider your current projects and see how many have gone through this point completely. How different might that situation be if this step were properly in place?

Regular Alignment
The key word here is "Regular". This is different from your weekly or monthly project meetings where everyone discusses what has been done and where success lies currently. An alignment session might happen quarterly or twice a year. This meeting should not talk about the semantics of the project but instead should have all the principal players (including new team members) discussing the overall intent of the project, and where things are at an expectations level. The contract should be present to clear up misunderstandings, especially among new additions to one or both teams. Here is where time lost on making a report prettier or the requests to have data weekly instead of biweekly can be worked out and the project can be kept focused on the end goals and not on extra unimportant things. The key here is that if it was truly important it would have been discussed and settled before this point. Unforeseen things happen of course, so this is where contract amendments can be considered to account for things previously not considered, but both sides need to agree and the Kick Off process above must be walked through again.

The Phone Is Your Friend
In today's Internet workplace, email is king. And for regular project communication, it is an excellent tool. It leaves a clear communication trail without the mess and helps keep your IT team employed. When it comes to expectations, however, you are now dealing with a more human aspect, with a side of satisfaction to boot. Here is where a couple of phone calls come in handy (or even in-person when possible). Email is a good place for reading a person's words, but one cannot determine the tone or feeling as one might when actually hearing or seeing someone speak. A terse statement might be read as short-tempered when, in fact, the person was merely busy and did not wish to spend time writing in a personable fashion. Alternately, a terse statement might be read as the person's usual demeanor when, in fact, the person is not happy about something.

The bottom line is that when it comes to managing the expectations on a project, the communication should be human-to-human. Leave the data and document deliverables to the Internet; connect with your team as a person and you will find that relationships become tighter. Even a tense discussion can end with a measure of understanding and respect for the other party when done on the phone. It is easier to resolve issues and overcome obstacles when both sides see the other as a partner and not part of the problem. Regular phone time can help ensure that the foundation is there for that level of trust.

The Bottom Line

Much of this is similar to Project Management, and in many ways they are essentially the same thing. Expectation Management, however, deals with the human being on the other side of that project. You can look at the expectations as a source of stress and tension, something to constantly worry about or you can flip that coin over and seize the opportunity to understand those expectations and help guide and define them. Delivering to expectation is much easier and more satisfying for everyone when you are a part of their creation.

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