The Project Notebook

Hope — and Expectations — Spring Eternal

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2012, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved, Reproduced with permission of the author.  No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission.

Ah spring, the season when the dreariness of winter ends. Expectations for project outcomes have many similarities with the season of spring. There is a sense of euphoria that whatever unpleasantries have preceded the start of spring or of a project are but faded memories. The signs of spring such as brilliantly colored flowers or the requisite needs for a project such as adequate budget offer promise of future accomplishments. However, project expectations, like new plants, must be properly nurtured so that they do not grow out of control, succumb to droughts caused by lack of planning, or get choked by destructive forces.

It is common to assume that expectations are generated only at the beginning of a project. A good project management technique involves holding brainstorming sessions to allow participants to identify their expectations. Project managers who do not use this technique may hope to avoid inciting runaway expectations that can pull the project in multiple incompatible directions. However, expectations, like desert flowers, can lie dormant for an incredible amount of time waiting for the mix of conditions that will cause them to emerge. Refusing to acknowledge expectations can result in unwelcome eruptions during the course of the project. For example, users involved in developing software requirements may identify needs that require a solution far more expensive than any realistic budget will allow. If these users submit their “wish list” during project initiation and then are not involved in the project until final implementation, they “expect” that their wishes will have been addressed. At that point in the project only a major overhaul of the software resulting in significant cost overruns and schedule delays will satisfy the users. This situation of unfulfilled expectations could be avoided by involving key users throughout the entire project and ensuring that effective communication reaches all people impacted by the project decisions. Providing for feedback throughout the project and demonstrating that feedback is being incorporated in the project decisions is another powerful technique in expectations management.

Hidden agendas can masquerade as expectations and can be challenging for a project manager to uncover. Many times the initial project activities include a session when all of the participants meet to set the direction of the project. The project manager needs to be alert to identify actions that do not match words. An example of this type of “disconnect” can occur when a project sponsor promises to exert political clout in order to obtain adequate funding. However, as the budget process progresses, the sponsor may be unable to attend meetings, may “forget” to send the necessary memos or emails, and/or may delegate participation to an individual who has no appropriate authority in the organization. These types of actions send a message to a project manager that the sponsor does not support the project and may in fact want to see it end. A project manager faced with this situation should conduct research to determine the root causes for the sponsor’s lack of involvement and to initiate actions to address the true concerns.

While every spring and every project offer the opportunity for new and better outcomes, it is essential to remember those activities that worked. Perhaps a better “fertilizer” in the form of a two-way communication plan may improve the positive impact of expectations. A more proactive “nurturing treatment” may include the involvement of key people throughout the course of the project. Also, it never hurts to review what experts recommend for more successful outcomes, whether they be prize-winning flowers or successful projects.

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 in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

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© 2010-2012 Ray W. Frohnhoefer, MBA, PMP, CCP