Set and Manage Expectations Or Work Hard and Fail Anyway

Contracts and brand reputation do not guarantee success. Success is wholly dependent upon active, intentional communication and listening.

Matthew D Edwards
April 24, 2020

Originally published on LinkedIn.

You work hard and perform well for your client. And somehow, the client is dissatisfied with both the journey and the result. Both parties perceive the other party failed the engagement.

Your options are simple:

A. Grumble about the client's IQ in private.

B. Debate with the seemingly confused client to set them straight.

C. Together explore where the journey went off course – and correct it.

Who messed up? At least one of you. Most likely, both of you.

Expectation setting and management must occur, on purpose, by both parties, at every milestone and moment of an engagement. Beginning, middle, and end. Constantly. Doing so enables trust through transparency, allows the client to stay in control of the direction, investment, and definition of done, and contributes to the probability of your mutual success. Look at it as the difference between being a short-term vendor or long-term partner.

There are four steps. They have a non-negotiable order. They apply to all people on an engagement. And they must all be present, or the relationship will break down into dissatisfaction, dissension, and potentially dissolution.

Step 1: Set Engagement Expectations

Many people are familiar with contracts. A legal framework between two parties outlining the parameters of the relationship. While contracts, with counter-signatures, obviously matter, they only enable forward movement in a fenced direction. Contracts are permission to engage. Client delight happens because of relationships. And relationships happen through intentional communication and listening.

The entire engagement depends upon a clearly understood, documented, and ratified problem statement and set of desired outcomes. Knowing these two things defines everything that follows in the engagement.

"Why are we here?"

"How do we know when we are done?"

"What must we navigate to get from here to there?"

Figure 1. Set Engagement Expectations at the Beginning (Day 1)
Figure 1. Set Engagement Expectations at the Beginning (Day 1)

With an agreed-upon, documented problem statement and one or more desired outcomes, you are building your house (your engagement) on rock. You have a very high probability of success in this situation because you have mutually agreed upon a point of reference – your starting point.

Without an agreed-upon, documented problem statement and one or more desired outcomes, you are building your house on shifting sands. You have a very low probability of success in this situation.

Interestingly, doing this step alone doesn't get the job done. There are more steps to setting and managing expectations.

Step 2: Set Deliverable Expectations

Now that we've established the problem statement and desired outcomes, we've together set the foundation upon which we will deliver value together.

Next, we need to discuss how we are going to work together and what we will be delivering along the way. We're talking about the operational framework of the engagement.

Figure 2. Set Activity/Deliverable Expectations at the Beginning (Day 1)
Figure 2. Set Activity/Deliverable Expectations at the Beginning (Day 1)

What we know so far on this engagement is the following:

  • Why are we here
  • What will we do together
  • How we will know when we're done
  • How we are going to operate together

What we have not yet established is living and working together during the journey.

Step 3: Set Operational Expectations

So far, we've mutually agreed upon the problem statement, the desired outcomes, what will be delivered, and how we will be doing it along the way. Now we must manage the day to day expectations, operation, and results. We must communicate and listen intentionally.

The purpose of setting and managing daily, weekly, and iteration level expectations is to manage the journey together by bringing the client along with us. We are working with and for our client, not doing things to the client. Build a relationship, not a reporting structure.

For the benefit of all parties, the frequency and method by which we interact and communicate needs to be low ceremony, low overhead, natural, and relational. Short. To the point. Done.

Figure 3. Set Individual Expectations Daily/Weekly/Iteration
Figure 3. Set Individual Expectations Daily/Weekly/Iteration

When a client is actively informed and involved, they have confidence in us, our team, our abilities, commitment, direction, and circumstances.

When a client is not actively informed or included, it is only a matter of time before unanswered questions and concerns lead to distrust and breakdown in the relationship.

Step 4: Manage Expectations As They Change

This step is where a breakdown in relationships frequently occurs and where I'll amplify critical path considerations.

We had a plan. Something in our control, or outside our control, changed. The change has ripples that mildly or substantially impact our original plan. The change will affect time, complexity, and potentially the look and feel of the solution itself. It may even impact safety and security. You have three options:

Option 1: Try to eat the change on top of your existing commitment.

Option 2: Hide the change and act like nothing happened.

Option 3: Communicate the change immediately and discuss next steps.

Option one is controversial. Option two is unprofessional. Option three has the highest probability outcome.

The first option is controversial. Competitive people will say to each other, "No one cares. Get back up off the ground and get it done. You can do one more." I've done it. It can work. However, you need to know yourself and your team very well, their history, attitudes, aptitudes, and capabilities, as well as the risks, issues, and dependencies. The stakes are high.

Option one can also lead to martyrdom. When a team falls on its proverbial sword to get to the end of the engagement without a hiccup, it can alternatively lead to team disillusionment, burnout, and disbandment. And if you don't make it to the line, client dissatisfaction. So you may lose your team, your client, and potentially yourself walking this path. It is a gamble.

For some who don't value people, option one looks useful to them. And for those who believe everyone should just suck it up and get it done, option one seems like a normal choice. As a leader, this is your call. Results are not guaranteed. Casualties may be high.

Option two is immoral, unprofessional, and foolhardy. It isn't an option for a company, team, or individual who wants to build a reputation of integrity, value, and professionalism. Your last name is your reputation. Your company brand is your professional reputation. Choose.

Option three is best. The benefits include client delight, a healthy, happy, battle-tested team that sticks with you engagement after engagement, a reputation for valuing people, successful partnerships, and delivering value, not just contracts.

Figure 4. Reset Expectations As They Change, Real-Time
Figure 4. Reset Expectations As They Change, Real-Time

If you want to meet or exceed expectations, you have to set them first. And when they change, you have to reset them in real-time. Only when you feel like you are over-communicating are you coming close to communicating enough.

Checklist for Meeting and Exceeding Expectations with Anyone

  • Before you do anything else, verify the problem statement and desired outcomes.
  • Recommend options to address the problem and achieve the desired outcomes.
  • Agree on the chosen direction and approach.
  • Reiterate the problem statement, desired outcome(s), and chosen direction.
  • Prior to engagement start: Set expectations clearly by stating what work will be performed, what will be delivered, and any dependencies or risks that exist potentially impacting success. Be sure to articulate what work will not be performed and delivered.
  • During the engagement: Daily communicate progress. What happened yesterday, what will happen today, and if there is anything stopping, changing, or otherwise altering progress and direction that needs addressed.
  • During the engagement: Dynamically communicate change and ripples. Communicate the event, the implications, and what it means to the activities, deliverables, and timeline. "We had a plan. Something has changed. Here is what it means to us."
  • At the end of the engagement: Communicate results. Begin by communicating what was committed, what changed, and what was delivered.

You will need to dial this into whatever level of detail and frequency the intended recipient desires.

Some people value daily updates; others weekly. Remember, to meet and exceed expectations requires constant and vigilant interaction with the person, team, or company with whom you are allegedly providing value. When people don't hear from you, they form their own mental story-line. Manage the message or have it managed for you.

Be ever-present, over-communicative, and intentional.

Or be second-guessed, questioned and replaced.