The Project Notebook

Proactively Managing Project Expectations

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

By now 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 goals may actually be solutions, not true goals. In any case the project manager needs to ask leading questions that will uncover the true expectations for the project.

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. The people who must be kept informed and whose continuing input must be solicited will also be apparent at this point.

Education of the project sponsors is 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 without question. 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 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. While there may be a little “mind reading” involved, proactive expectation management encompasses identifying and dealing with the 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

Project Sponsorship

Over on LinkedIn, one of the most popular discussions I’ve seen in some time is still in progress. It was posted 8 months ago and has over 1,000 responses (and is still going strong). It starts with a list similar to one I saw for the first time 7-8 years ago at a PMI ISSIG meeting. The author asks that responders identify the top cause of project failure from the following candidate list:

#1. Lacking Sponsor’s Involvement/Ownership
#2. Halo Effect (Wrong Man for the Job)
#3. Poor HR Management
#4. Poor/Inadequate Project Communications
#5. Ignoring Project Stakeholders
#6. Absence of Risk Management
#7. Scope Creep/Unrealistic Expectations
#8. Lack of Monitoring of Plan
#9. Absence of a Project Management Methodology
#10. Simple BAD LUCK 🙂

Now at the ISSIG session, over 300 participants generated a similar list, with the #1 cause of project failure being poor project sponsorship. For me, the number 1 cause (project sponsorship) is a root cause of all the other problems, with the possible exception of #10 (bad luck). Most project sponsors are usually senior executives, and the ones that should be managing and influencing the company culture such that the other items on the list are addressed. Many of them throw up roadblocks and hurdles that prevent even the most empowered and accountable employees from getting things done.

Let’s look at a couple of examples. If there is not an adequate project methodology, the senior executive team is the group that can most quickly and effectively allocate the resources to develop one. If there is poor HR management, then the senior executive for HR is the most likely candidate to get this fixed. Grass roots efforts and empowered employees can only get so far without the support of the senior executive team. When the going gets tough, this is usually the first group to exhibit what the Oz Principle refers to as “below the line” (victim) behavior.

Good project sponsors take on some of the following tasks and roles:

– Communicate the business need for the project
– Advocates the project across the business and promotes it to senior executives
– Ensures the project is justified and there is a realistic business case
– Works with the project manager to ensure the critical success factors are met
– Remains aware of key issues and gets involved when the project manager cannot resolve them
– Ensures the desired business benefit is an outcome.

My commitment to my project team, as an executive, is that if you help me by making me aware of the roadblocks and hurdles you face, I will do my best to remove them for you.

Just for Today

[Happy New Year! I just returned from a 10-day trip to the east coast to visit clients and attend the annual Volunteer Strategy and Planning meeting for PMI Global Operations Center volunteers in Philadelphia. To start off the New Year of the Project Notebook, here is Susan Peterson’s message from January 2005 which seems even more relevant today in light of the challenges expected for all in 2009. – RWF]

It’s that time of year when so many of us contemplate a “fresh start” for a better life personally and professionally. Making New Year’s resolutions is often a part of starting this process. However, statistics indicate that few resolutions are still in force by the end of January. One reason for the demise of so many well intentioned goals is that it seems impossible to keep challenging resolutions for the rest of our lives. Some “experts” advocate shortening the time perspective by focusing only on keeping the resolution “just for today”. Project managers can also become overwhelmed by the thought of having to sustain efforts for the entire length of a project. Let’s look at some possibilities for applying “just for today” to common project management challenges.

Just for today. . . I will have the courage and the intestinal fortitude:

To not accept that a project has to be underfunded
I will use the relevant terms and concerns that make the project sponsor realize the true impacts of taking the lowest bid or cutting corners at every step. Sponsors may not care or even comprehend earned value analysis, dependencies or any of a number of common project management terms. However, “decreased net sales revenue”, “lack of customer confidence” and other specifically business-related phrases are more apt to grab the attention of sponsors. I will also rise to the challenge of finding creative (and legal) sources of additional funding so that the sponsor appreciates the seriousness of my budgetary concerns.

To get to the source of unrealistic completion dates
I will uncover what force is driving the project implementation date. I will also work with the client, customer and/or user to determine what really needs to be done by the target completion date. Using education regarding tradeoffs will assist in setting realistic expectations. I will remind myself that these people have probably always been told at the beginning of the project that the target date is “doable”. They don’t make the connection that an upfront “yes” is often followed by a backend “we need a little more time”.

To focus on needs not wants
I will ask questions that cause the client, customer and/or user to dig deep beyond the surface symptoms to get at the real problem or opportunity. At that point, we can all focus effectively on addressing the actual issues rather than spinning off on tangents that will hinder project performance. I will also identify relevant measures of success that are meaningful to the project sponsor.

Let’s not forget the project manager’s need for a “just for today” assessment:

Just for today . . . I will focus on the strengths that make me a good project manager. I will think about the many good things that have happened on the projects that I have managed. After all, there are always plenty of people who are willing to criticize but few who are willing to praise.

May all of your projects be successful . . . and if not, remember the upbeat thought of the “Gone With the Wind” heroine, Scarlet O’Hara, . . . “tomorrow is another

Susan Peterson, MBA, PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course in the UCSD PM Certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at

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