Managing Expectations Leads to Successful Outcomes

I’ve written about context (Without Context, You Can’t Make an Informed Decision) and how important it is when making a point. For example, if your work involves IT consulting to the U.S. Government, your context is completely different from someone working in a software start-up targeting consumers. The ground rules are totally different.

In a similar vein, setting expectations is critically important. Few of us manage them well. Set them too high and you’ll likely disappoint your customers, even if you deliver as specified.

Software development teams, regardless of approach (Kanban, Lean, Scrum, Waterfall, etc.), spend lots of time on business requirements, stories, minimum viable products, and other ways of defining what the business needs. While these are good concepts, they often mean almost nothing to our stakeholders and end users.

Expectations mean much more.

Consider that expectations go far deeper than requirements. Expectations have an emotional component. They represent a kind of vision or mental image of a future state. When system changes are introduced, they will be mentally compared to expectations. If the changes align to expectations, you have satisfied customers. If not, you don’t (even if you delivered on the requirements as specified).

Most people don’t know what to expect from a new or revised software system. We need to educate them in terms they can relate to. For example, telling a group that the software will run inside Safari on the Apple iPad will set high expectations with some people and mean nothing to others. Keep it simple and use examples wherever possible.

Expectations are usually set by a combination of factors. The requirements, stories, etc. play a role, but often a secondary role. Why? Simply because they tend to be too long and complex for most people to grasp.

That presentation given to the business stakeholders may have had the biggest impact on expectations. The words used and the enthusiasm in the presenter’s voice may have set expectations higher than intended.

Listen and learn.

To gauge expectations, it’s important to listen carefully to what the stakeholders and customers say. Their comments help us understand the level of excitement they have. Is it too much? Their questions can help us direct their expectations appropriately by offering appropriate answers.

People are more likely to let us manage their expectations once they get to know and trust us. Would you put your faith in a complete stranger? Get to know your key stakeholders and power users. Be open and build credibility.

Remember that setting expectations is not a one time exercise. We need to monitor and redirect them during the course of every project as new information arrives. Try spending a little more time managing expectations. You might have more successful outcomes.

Updated: September 15, 2011 — 10:49 pm

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