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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Ready, Set – – – Implement!

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2010, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

Near the end of the project executing phase project plans display that elusive milestone designated as “final implementation”. When many project managers see that milestone looming on their Gantt charts, they often feel that their work is nearing completion. However, the challenges may have just started. This article identifies implementation concerns that need to be addressed during the initiating and planning phases. Despite the emphasis on all of the project management phases, it’s the implementation that leaves the lasting impression in the memories of customers, clients, and users.

During the initiating phase final implementation is often defined in tangible terms of specific solutions such as “install software system”, “introduce new product”, or “construct manufacturing facility”. The definition of goals in terms of accomplishments is often overlooked. Why is the software system being installed? What will be gained by introducing the new product? Why is the facility being built? Emphasizing the need to agree on the reasons for a project during the initiating phase is crucial in order to uncover the true needs, wants and expectations. Only then can the project manager understand the forces that will continue to impact project sponsors and participants throughout the other processes.

Examples of specific implementation concerns that need to be addressed during the initiating process include the following:
• What are the potential impacts on the internal organization? Areas such as upgraded employee skill requirements, organizational restructuring, new policies/procedures and facilities changes are a few of the areas to be addressed.
• What are the potential impacts on the supply chain and on both current and potential customers? If impacts are identified, the involvement of appropriate representatives from all affected groups is critical — even if the project manager would rather not hear what they have to say.
• What external factors such as market conditions, the economy, and government regulations may impact the project implementation? What potential changes are likely to occur? The longer the timeframe of the project, the higher the possibility that external factors will have strong impacts.

In contemplating how to address implementation concerns such as those identified in the “Initiating” section of this article, project managers may feel that comprehensive contingency planning is the best defense. However, even contingency plans are prone to change during the executing phase. There is also a strong tendency to discount contingency planning as a waste of time and resources. “Let’s wait and see if a crisis develops” and/or “Who knows what tomorrow will bring?” are common attitudes towards many proposed contingency planning efforts.

Rather than ignoring potential implementation concerns, project plans can include decision points and related measures to assess the need for revised implementation activities. This technique deals with the question “How can we plan what we don’t know?” For example, two technical research paths may be pursued on a parallel basis for a defined period of time. At the end of the designated time period a decision point in the project plan can identify the need to examine measured progress of the two separate research efforts. Based on the outcome of this assessment, a decision can be made to select the best option for final implementation.

Hoping for optimum full implementation but dealing with probable suboptimum reality is another technique to be employed during the planning process. Some projects are funded only through a portion of the time needed for total completion. Final funding may depend on a variety of uncontrollable factors such as other projects’ budgetary needs, internal management priority changes and external political pressures. An example is a multi-year software development project that is funded one year at a time. The planning process must recognize the potential for cancellation at the end of any budgetary year. The development effort can be structured so that multiple workable modules can be implemented within annual timeframes rather than an “all or none” approach that only plans for a final single implementation. Use of the “all or none” approach guarantees disaster if complete funding is not forthcoming.

In summary, the foundation for successful final implementation starts at the beginning of the project management process. Identifying the true forces during the initiating phase that will impact the entire project defines the framework for successful implementation. Addressing probable impacts and incorporating decision points for unknown outcomes during the planning process facilitates flexibility. Making implementation a part of all of the project management processes is critical for a successful “lasting impression”.

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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Strategic Thinking to Improve Expectations and Innovation

Much of project planning requires an ability to think strategically, yet this is a step often left out. It means we need to think not just about our immediately desired outcomes, but look at what some of the other options are going to be.
According to the Philadelphia based Center for Advanced Reasearch (CFAR), “Strategic thinking focuses on finding and developing unique opportunities to create value by enabling a provocative and creative dialogue among people who can affect a company’s

There is an opportunity to substitute “project’s direction” for the last two words in this quote. After all, in a projectized company, the projects and products (which require projects for creation) are what contribute most to success. There are opportunities in planning to look at what all the possible solutions are.

Recently one of my client projects hit a significant challenge. It looked as though what the client wanted and what the product was able to do were 180 degrees apart. The last thing you want to do is drop communication with your client while you look at the alteratives. This will decrease their engagement in the project which would not be to your benefit. When you encounter such an obstacle, here are some concrete steps which will allow you to meet the client needs, set expectations which are appropriate, and then move ahead.

1) Determine what you CAN do with the project or product. Be sure you’ve thoroughly explored the client expectations from all angles as well as what is currently realistic. Show what that solution might look like, even if it doesn’t satisfy all the needs. Make this a concrete solution which could be demonstrated internally.

2) Without showing the “offending” solution to the client, frame additional questions to probe their needs and your solution. Show the solution to the product developers so they can see what the pros and cons are.

3) Identify any low hanging fruit. If there is a possiblity to move the client ahead with a part of the “as is” solution, start them down that path to keep up engagement. If not, you might evaluate the possibility of bringing the client into the process and identify an appropriate step.

4) Brainstorm all the possibilities without judging the solutions. These may not even involve the product, but you want to be sure you are looking at all the potential solutions which could benefit your customer. You want to explore the solution from both sides of the equation — what if I could change my client’s expectations and what if I could develop an alternative solution.

5) Quickly develop the top contenders one step further. Are they feasible? What would the costs be?

6) With all your ducks in a row, schedule your client review. Show them your initial solution and explain your dissatisfaction with it. Show them your top alternative(s) so they can see the difference. Get client feedback.

7) At this point, the process may become iterative. If the client immediately sees the benefits of your alternative, great! There may be some additional rounds of discussion to justify costs and clarify outcomes. More likely there will be more discussions of the alternatives and the client will review their expectations as well.

After a few iterations, you will hopefully have a clear path to move the project forward. You will have continued to engage your client, and will possibly identify an innovative solution which will benefit not just this client, but future clients as well.

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Look Before the Project – Part II

Last week we looked at the BCR — Benefit-Cost Ratio as a way of evaluating a project. This week I’d like to look at a related technique — Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). The purpose of many projects is to introduce a new product or service. Often this new product or service has a later ongoing operation. For example, if you have installed Oracle Financials, there is a need to develop the customized software and populate the initial data, but once that is complete, there are expenses associated with rolling out the project, paying the maintenance fees, hiring the staff to keep the data current, etc. Similarly if you project is to construct a housing development, there are ongoing expenses after the homes are built to sell them and get the buyers moved in.

Total Cost of Ownership goes beyond BCR in that it looks at the ongoing expenses associated with a project and let’s you know more about what it will really cost to keep things going once the project has ended. This is an important component of expenses to examine since the “care and feeding” of a product or project can be significant. Likewise, the benefits may extend out as well. About a year ago I did a TCO analysis for installing and operating MS SharePoint. You can click here to download my analysis and follow along.

This analysis starts off quite straightforward. A minimal server is needed (for a small site), some software, some consulting, and some fractional personnel to maintain the system. These all represent the hard dollar costs. The hard dollar savings, however, are difficult to identify. There may be some reduced costs on the IT infrastructure, but predicting what they are is difficult, and chances are the savings are minimal. This would especially be true in the first year. Most of the savings comes from productivity increases. I identified a list in the lower right hand corner. The key, of course, is in organization and collaboration. The savings attributable to these is simply an estimate. I also envisioned a premium offering for customers based on a SharePoint implementation, but like the other hard dollar savings, I declined to include a committed estimate.

Note that I ran this analysis out for five years. This gave me some space to show ongoing operational requirements. Things that might have been included here would be increased server capacity if the number of users were to grow or add on software costs if additional packages would be required. The general observation you should make, however, is that the savings outweigh the costs, making this a reasonable investment. The lack of hard dollar savings might see it prioritized after other projects, but unless something better comes along, its likely to be implemented at some point.

Once again, if you have any questions about the analysis, please leave a comment or drop me an email. Next week, in the third and final part of Look Before the Project, I’ll take a look at a Statement of Work and how it can be used to set and manage project expectations at the start.

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