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Mindfully Managing Expectations

Last month I wrote about the place for pushback in managing expectations in projects.  As comments pointed out, it is not just push back that is needed.  Push back is one factor among many.  When we do find the need to push back it must be done consciously as a part of the overall process of managing expectations and within the context of meeting project objectives in the most effective way. 

Clearly, the expectations of stakeholders, both those with power and those without, have a significant effect on project success and the degree to which the project is faced with unnecessary conflict and performance shortfalls.  Sponsor and client expectations of delivery of something on some date within some budget must be informed by their awareness of project risks and complexities.  Where expectations do not consider risk and change, there is a pressure that is created to do the “impossible” or suffer the consequences.

This pressure can be quite powerful as a motivator but too much of it or the wrong kind will have negative effects.  What is the right balance?  When does pushing the edge or stretching to optimize performance become a dysfunctional charge into trying to do too much too quickly and for a bargain cost?

How Do We Manage Expectations? 

The first step is to take a step back from ourselves and assess stakeholders’ perceptions, needs, desires and mental models.  In a project everyone has expectations. 

Expectations drive performance; committed people work to meet their own expectations and the expectations of others.  If the expectations are “stretch” then performance may tighten up and extra effort will be applied to hit targets.  Lessons learned will enable future projects to be more optimally performed.

In the body, if the stretch is too much a muscle gets pulled.  Personal performance degrades, at least until the muscle heals.  If there is not enough stretch there is tightness, rigidity, slowness, increased danger of pulling muscles and reduced capacity to stretch.

Projects are like bodies in this way.  Too much stretch and there is dysfunction – burn-out, taking unwise shortcuts, lost opportunities and in many cases unmet expectations.  Too little stretch and project targets may be met but costs and performance efficiencies across multiple projects will suffer as will the ability to hit performance peaks when needed.

Expectations are Thoughts

They represent what we want to have happen and think can or will happen?  Underlying expectations are assumptions regarding how the project will play out to deliver the desired outcome.   A key assumption supporting healthy expectations is that there is uncertainty and that the more complex and hostile the working environment is, the greater the uncertainty. 

To manage expectations, we facilitate so that everyone is aware of and tests the validity of their expectations.  Then we can work to get a mutual agreement regarding objectives, product scope and the work itself.  Work is realistically scheduled; costs are estimated; risks, the inevitability of change, environmental and resource constraints are understood; project performance and management processes are defined; roles and responsibilities are understood and used as a basis for accountability. 

These are the major factors that, when brought together, establish stakeholder expectations.   Expectations drive performance and establish the benchmark for project success.  Make sure they are rational:  What is the likelihood of their being met, given expected resources and conditions?

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George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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