The Project Notebook

Proactively Managing Expectations

By:  Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP

Copyright 2011, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

All of us have expectations in life.  Some are attainable without much effort.  Others take considerable personal effort and a huge dose of good luck.  Still others will never be realized regardless of the effort expended.  Project owners, sponsors, customers and clients are no different in the diverse degrees of reality associated with their expectations for project outcomes.  The project manager’s key to success in handling the expectations of others is to be proactive rather than waiting for an angry email, an escalated complaint, or nasty verbal abuse.

 You may be thinking, “Anyone can be proactive as long as he/she is a mind reader.”  Actually, the first step is to uncover the true goals (target accomplishments, not the solution) that each project owner, sponsor, customer and/or client has in mind.  This step may be more challenging than it sounds.  The documented goals may have been set prior to the project manager’s being assigned to the project.  In this situation the documented “goals” may actually be solutions, not true goals.  The project manager needs to ask questions that will uncover the true expectations.

 Once the true goals have been uncovered, proactive expectation management can begin.  For example, the project completion date is often hopelessly unrealistic.  While it may not be politically expedient, the project manager needs to address this expectation early in the project life cycle.  Some questions that need to be asked include these:

  • What and who are driving the completion date?
  • What really is expected to be accomplished by the stated completion date?
  • What can be deferred to a later phase?

Once the project manager has this information, he/she knows the actions to take with regard to retaining or revising the completion date.

 Education of project sponsors is also critical.  They may be used to working with project managers who always agree to their requests.  I had one project sponsor who called me and said “I have a minor change that will only take 15 minutes of your team’s time.”  He was used to project managers accepting his changes.  However, he had never been made to realize the connection between his requests and the fact that projects he sponsored were never delivered on time.  Rather than saying “no” immediately, I asked for an explanation of his request.  I then walked him through the actual time (three weeks) and resource commitment, which included the involvement of his own personnel.  I also reminded him that he was on record as saying that the completion date could not be changed.  Then I said, “What do you want to give up so that we can include this new request in the project plan?”  He laughed, and we then identified activities that could be deleted so that his request could be accommodated.  The next time that he called to request a change, he had already reviewed the plan and could tell me what work could be dropped.  I also learned that he requested far fewer changes from me than from other project managers with whom he worked.

 These are only a few examples of how project managers can manage expectations.  Proactive expectation management encompasses identifying and dealing with the cause(s) and source(s) of the expectations rather than the symptoms.

 Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia.  She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices.  Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States.  She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course as well as the Project Portfolio Management course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee.  She can be contacted at <>.

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