How to Set “Great Expectations”

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I’ve witnessed many project failures simply because expectations were not clearly set from the start.

The setting of expectations is not for the faint-of-heart. Often, your business partner will not want to hear the harsh reality of how much time or money their new idea will cost. Many IT managers avoid it altogether because of the “shoot the messenger” feeling it evokes. But remember, there’s an important element of ownership and accountability in this part of the process. Yes, the business owns the project, but IT owns the estimation process, and it’s in your best interest to ensure it’s done properly. It’s okay to stand your ground and make sure it is done right. No one said that IT management was going to be easy, did they?

Here are my top tips for any IT Managers who need to set the record straight:

Be Prepared
Providing estimates for something that you haven’t had the time to review is a recipe for disaster. If you receive the requirements late and are expected to provide estimates, then ensure that you make this known to your business partners. It’s better to delay and provide a proper estimate than “wing it” and suffer the consequences. However, if you did receive them with good notice, then make sure you get back to the business early on with any questions or concerns.

Set Expectations Early
When a request for an estimate or new work arrives, make sure to ask the question, “What expectations do you have or have you set?” Make sure to use this same opportunity to reset expectations based on what you know of the request.

Keep the Message Clear and Concise
Make sure you articulate your message in such a way that is meaningful and clear. Simply saying “No” isn’t acceptable and often fosters a negative IT/Business relationship. Set the expectations (i.e.: How much it will cost, how long it will take) but also help them understand why. Be prepared with supporting documents (resourcing allocations, known project priorities), and always ensure that your audience is left with a clear and concise response that cannot be misinterpreted.

Did they Hear You?
Did they hear what you said or did they hear what they wanted to hear? Make sure that you repeat a summary at the conclusion of the meeting. Obtaining a sign-off or some other formal acknowledgment is a good way to ensure that people are listening.

Put it in Writing (CYA)
Yes, by doing this you are covering your you-know-what, but you are also protecting the business by doing so. Putting it in writing solidifies the agreement and ensures that there are consistent expectations between all parties.

Rinse and Repeat
As time goes on, the project requirements will inevitably change. You must ensure that you reset expectations with the business every step of the way. We often don’t account for the “little things” that get thrown-in throughout the project. The accumulation of these little things amount to an overall delay in deployment. (I like the term “Death by a thousand paper-cuts”.) So, keep re-setting those expectations at every possible opportunity.

This is project management 101, and I encourage anyone with IT Management career aspirations to take at least some project management training. It’s a tried and true method of managing the madness of scope-creep and expectations setting. And don’t fear coming across as a “stick-in-the-mud”; There are far worse reputations to have.