Expectations are one of the biggest killers or communication wins on a project. This issue, we're talking about tips and tricks to manage expectations and why this is so important, anyway.
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Issue #18

Making Great Expectations 

I've talked a little bit about managing expectations in past issues, but (surprisingly) I haven't dedicated an entire issue to it until now. Along with communication, managing expectations is one of the things I see as a core to project management. Being able to effectively manage team expectations, client expectations, and overall project expectations is an art, and something that we all struggle with in different ways.

The last few weeks, my projects have all revolved heavily around the need to manage expectations. Communicating and educating my teams and clients about their project statuses and getting them involved in the decision-making processes has been a large part of the expectation management I've been doing recently. It's also had me revisiting many resources and thoughts about managing expectations as a PM—so here are a few key concepts that have been relevant to me lately.

The Upfront Contract

One of the first things I ever learned as a project manager-in-training was a technique used by the sales team at my company—the upfront contract. This is my favorite communication tool on projects. The upfront contract is used to set expectations at the beginning of a meeting. 

I use this in every meeting that I run. I always open my meetings by stating the following items: (1) the reason we are meeting, (2) the goals we intend to accomplish in this meeting (for all parties involved), (3) what general next steps will come out of this meeting ("we will use the information from this meeting to..."), (4) our meeting agenda (how we will discuss and reach our intended outcome for the meeting), and (5) how long I expect the meeting will take.

This usually takes just a minute or two to talk through, but sets the tone for a well-informed, well-intentioned meeting where everyone is aware of our goals and can add productively to the conversation. It's also a very easy way to set boundaries as off-topic discussions come up.

Expectations Default to Perception

If we don't intentionally set and manage expectations on our projects, the default falls to preconceptions and perceptions of what should be happening. Our clients will typically not know what our process is, how to engage with it, and what reasonable timelines look like for our projects if we don't communicate these things to them and let them know what to expect.

If our clients don't know what to expect, they will fall back on what they think might be reasonable instead—which might be based on no knowledge of our processes, knowledge of a past agency's process, or applying their knowledge of their own processes to our work. Without communicating expectations, our clients (or even our teams!) fall back to their own unique experiences and benchmarks, which almost definitely are vastly different from our methods and expectations for our own projects.

More Reading

Types of expectations and levels of understanding
This article describes the different types of expectations that might be held by a client—for example, interpersonal or technological expectations. I really like the breakdown of types of understanding of expectations, ranging from fuzzy, realistic, implicit, explicit, and more. These are great to keep in mind as you work out what expectations have and haven't yet been managed on a project.

Email is for setting expectations 
I've long had this 99u article about email and expectations saved to read and re-read. Email can easily overwhelm me when projects get busy, and one of the most painless ways to manage expectations when receiving an email is to quickly reply that I've read the email, and am working on a full reply back soon. 

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