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Setting realistic project expectations

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One of the most challenging aspects of project management is managing the expectations of stakeholders, users and sponsors. This is just as true for experienced project managers as it is for those new to the profession. You don't want to commit to delivering less than you know is achievable but equally you don't want to promise more than you can realistically deliver – that's just setting the project up for certain failure. So just how can you set realistic expectations that stakeholders are happy with and that you have a good chance of delivering?  

Start at the planning phase

Get involved with setting and managing realistic expectations right at the outset so that you can influence deadline setting. Too often deadlines are set by senior management for external business reasons and with little thought to the realities of delivering a satisfactory outcome on time. Instead, discuss and agree key measurable objectives with senior management that will ensure initial deadlines and expectations are achievable. That way you and your project team will be better able to deliver.

Make sure the project scope is clear and stays clear

We all know that once a project is underway there will be attempts to add to the scope from all quarters. Those seemingly minor change requests are never truly insignificant especially as they can end up accumulating into a major re-work. Strictly evaluate every change in relation to the business case defined at the start of the project, and in terms of the impact on cost and schedule.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

This doesn't just mean establishing a communication plan and delivering regular updates. It means talking to, and listening to, everyone involved in the project. It means communicating in a concise and clear manner and reporting problems quickly to help resolve them efficiently. Everyone’s input is valuable when it comes to expectations.

Adjust expectations as soon as necessary

It can be tempting to think you can work your way out of a problem so not report it to the stakeholders. But it is far better for your working relationship with stakeholders to be honest about problems that arise – few projects will run completely without a hitch – and developing trust is a crucial part of managing a project. Working to adjust expectations when issues arise will help to ensure a happy customer at the end of the project even if the deliverable does not quite meet initial expectations.

Hold productive meetings

There's nothing like meeting face-to-face to judge how a project is being viewed by the stakeholders – if this isn't possible then video conferences can be used get everyone "together" at the same time. But just holding a meeting is not enough; you need to ensure it is a productive use of everyone's time – that means having an agenda prepared and communicated in advance and encouraging an atmosphere of open-ness and honesty.

Effectively managing expectations can be the difference between a successful project or not so ensure expectations are realistic from the outset, that problems are communicated in an open and honest way and that expectations are adjusted when necessary.


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  1. Mike Belch
    Mike Belch 10 January 2018, 06:03 PM

    Setting expectations is a two-way thing. My proudest achievement in one role was changing the behaviour of senior management and then setting the expectation with project teams that if they declared any aspect of their projects red, the first response from sponsors and stakeholders wouldn't be to shoot them, rather it would be to ask "What can we do to help you get back to green?".