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Expectation Management: The Difference Between Project Success and Failure

It is generally true that the gap between expectations and reality dictates how happy or unhappy we are about a particular outcome. This is also true in business, especially when it comes to projects. In fact, a key ingredient to success for projects is setting expectations with key stakeholders and keeping a pulse on them throughout the project.

One of the first things to be done in the project is to define what success will look like. It has to go beyond project deliverables and goals such as being on-time, on-budget, etc. The definition of success has to be very specific and well defined. “Complete the upgrade to Horizon ahead of the next winter season,” or “double trading related income over the next 2 yearsare examples of a well-defined business goal. 

Throughout the project, the goals will be constantly revisited and may evolve over the course of the project. Keeping ahead of expectations has to be an intentional activity that is done with regularity. This may seem obvious but can be overlooked when the project manager begins to focus on delivery. If expectations are not managed throughout the course of the project, the project will never meet the needs of the stakeholders.

Here are 3 ways to stay in sync with project stakeholders:

  1. Set realistic expectations 

    Identify the stakeholders' wants and carefully navigate the gap between what they want and what is realistic. We have been in projects where stakeholders have asked for what is nearly impossible given the scarce resources that the project has. The three constraints for projects are schedule, scope and budget.  The manager should have a good understanding of what constraints are fixed and create a plan that is realistic. When faced with something like this, it is good to be honest and provide the real cost of the demand. Will it take 2x the existing resources to deliver the scope within the timeline? Will it extend delivery time by 3 months given the resources that are available? Are these things acceptable to the stakeholder?

Take action: A conversation with the stakeholders needs to happen to come to a compromise and set realistic expectations. Keep in mind, projects are complex and there are multiple stakeholders. Each stakeholder may have different expectations so finding common ground is key. Also, don’t be apprehensive to push back on unrealistic expectations or the project team will fall into the trap of over promising and under-delivering.

  1. Check and optimize goals often

    Once goals have been clearly identified, don’t forget to constantly check back against them. Projects are dynamic and it is inevitable that priorities can be adjusted especially as the team becomes more aware of all the factors that impact a complex project. There are always unknown unknowns in a project plan that can affect the project as well.  

Take action: Setting up regular meetings with the project team and stakeholders will help the project manager manage the changing project landscape. Informing the team of the various challenges that the project is facing helps them understand changes to the goal. It also allows them to join in the conversation to talk about alternative solutions. This makes it easier to get their support when things change.

  1. Use milestones as expectation markers

    Expectations can feel intangible. Setting clear goals and having regular meetings are two ways to make expectation management more real. Another way to manage expectation is to define milestones along the way and celebrate when the milestones are reached. These milestones can be used as checkpoints and can be used as an opportunity to align on goal and expectations. Create efficiency in the project by using these dual-purpose check-ins.

Take action: Create a schedule staggered with multiple deliverables and quality checkpoints. At each checkpoint, ensure the deliverable milestone has been met and use it to make sure the expectations are on par relative to where the project is in the schedule.

The common thread in managing stakeholder expectations, is that communication is key. We suggest an upfront conversation to set expectations, regular standing meetings and scheduled quality checkpoints. While communication can happen at anytime during the project, having structured check-ins ensures that stakeholders and project managers will stay aligned throughout the project. This helps catch changes in the project or missed expectations early when it’s still easy to correct.  Keep lines of communication open and manage expectations with regular schedule meetings and the project will be on the road to success.

Expectation Management is the first of three execution-stage blogs in the CTRM Project Management Done Right series. Check back for the other two execution blogs, Unknown Unknowns and Change Management and don't forget to read the previous two blogs in the CTRM Project Management Done Right series: 

At Veritas Total Solutions, we are experts in CTRM Systems and believe our strong project management skills, including expectation setting and management, make us uniquely positioned to help you reach business value. If you are interested in learning more about our specific capabilities, contact us to learn more or subscribe to our blog to stay connected. 

Tags: CTRM Systems

Written by August Al-Uqdah

August Al-Uqdah, Partner and Co-Founder of Veritas, has a proven track record leading global teams through the implementation of complex and large-scale solutions in the energy industry. He has extensive experience within upstream, downstream and energy trading organizations.