The Science And Art Of Managing Project Expectations

Paul Naybour

There are plenty of difficult tasks to be accomplished in the average project but one that perhaps doesn’t get enough attention is managing project expectations. Many a problem on a project could have been avoided if the project manager had better managed the expectations of stakeholders and end users from the outset.

Mistakes made in setting expectations too high or in failing to manage those expectations as the project progresses are a common source of project failure – or maybe not failure exactly but a project that is somehow disappointing even if it is technically a success.

Plan for problems and conflict


This is where both science and art come into play – project expectations can be better managed by carefully considering in advance any possible resource issues or technology challenges that could arise during the project and making contingency plans to deal with them. Making sure additional time is available in the project plan to handle the unexpected – this is a simple, logical approach to potential problems.

But if a conflict arises – that could be over scope changes, budget, whatever – sometimes a logical approach is not enough and the project manager needs to use skills of persuasion and diplomacy to smooth ruffled feathers (a bit of art, if you will).

Take the Consequences

managing project expectations

No amount of skill and experience can ever produce a completely problem free project (or, at least, not in my experience) because projects by their very nature are involved with change and that rarely goes entirely smoothly. Although, of course, you can minimise problems with experience, project management training and the right approach.

When, and if, problems do arise it is no good trying to bury your head in the sand and hope no one will notice. You need to be honest and upfront about the issue, why it occurred and how you plan to deal with it.

Keep stakeholders updated regularly


manage stakeholder expectations with regular updatesComplex projects can very quickly start to look very different from the original plan – and for quite acceptable reasons – but if you do not update your stakeholders regularly then there is the risk that they will suddenly see the project as something they don’t recognise if they ae only update once a month or less frequently.

Communications can be as simple as reminders of upcoming milestones, updates on the budget, and changes agreed and potential risks that have a high probability of occurring. Clearly, don’t worry them about every little detail but at the same time don’t let a small issue wait until it becomes a crisis before informing stakeholders.

Set milestones


Milestones help everyone involved in the project to understand what is expected – that means the project team know when they need to complete a particular piece of work and stakeholders know when to expect significant progress (so won’t be pestering you for updates). Stakeholders and end-users can then plan their time to test and approve interim deliverables before the project proceeds onto the next stage.

Create a realistic schedule


Microsoft Project TrainingAh the bane of every project manager’s life has to be an unrealistic schedule set in stone even before any estimates have been provided or the project team put together! Yet setting a realistic project schedule is such an important part of managing expectations that without it you will be setting yourself up for failure. Whenever possible either work hard to re-negotiate the final deadline or to reduce the scope to give the project a better chance of being delivered on time – time to employ your project management skills of negotiation again.

If you communicate regularly with stakeholders, are able to establish a realistic schedule with clear milestones and contingency built in for dealing with problems then it will always be much easier to manage project expectations.

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