Project Management? Try Expectations Management

by | Oct 1, 2016 | Business

You take your car into the mechanic. They’ve told you it’ll take about an hour to fix, so you sit in the waiting room half-watching Fox News and flipping through an old issue of Car and Driver until they finish.

Half an hour passes.

Forty-five minutes.

An hour.

An hour and fifteen minutes.

You’re getting mad. By the time an hour and a half has passed, you march out to your car and ask the mechanic when he expects to be done. He says it’ll probably be another half hour.

You’re furious. Now you’re going to be late to the movie you were going to watch that afternoon with your significant other. You huff back to the waiting room, pull out your phone, and start writing a Yelp review about what a horrible mechanic shop they are. Then you blast them on Facebook. For the next year, whenever someone mentions taking their car in to get looked at, you say, “Well, don’t go to these guys, because they’re the worst.

Now, let’s try that again.

You take your car into the mechanic. They’ve told you it’ll take about three hours to fix, so you have your significant other pick you up after you leave the car, and you go out to enjoy a nice movie.

As you’re walking out of the theater, you get a text message.

Good news! We got it done faster than expected. Your car is ready to be picked up.

Sweet! Your significant other drives you back to the mechanic, and there’s your car, fully repaired and ready to go.

When you get home, you hop on Yelp and Facebook to talk about how your mechanic saved the day once again. Every time you hear someone mention taking their car in to get looked at, you make sure they go to your mechanic, because they’re the best.

The mechanic actually did the exact same amount of work in the same amount of time. The only difference was in your expectations.

It’s Chemical

When something happens better than we expected, our brains receive a burst of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward-motivated behavior. It makes us feel good.

In fact, we even get a little burst when things merely go according to plan. It helps us feel good, safe, and happy.

However, when we’re expecting something good–or even just regular–to happen, but it doesn’t, we feel that loss of anticipated dopamine acutely. It’s as if we lost something that was supposed to belonged to us, which kicks in our feelings of anger and injustice.

David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, describes it like this:

If we expect to get x and we get x, there’s a slight rise in dopamine. If we expect to get x and we get 2x, there’s a greater rise. But if we expect to get x and get 0.9x, then we get a much bigger drop.

We’re basically sending them into a chemical withdrawal when we violate their expectations, so you can start to understand why they might seem a little irrational in relation to the scale of what actually happened. They were expecting one more hit of dopamine, and you took it away from them.

The Expectations Death Spiral

The powerful negative effective of violating stakeholder expectations multiplies every time it happens on a project.

Let’s say you’re at the same mechanic, and you’re already angry about having to wait an hour longer than you were told. Then you find out the TV in the waiting room is broken. And then you find out they only accept payment in cash. You’d have steam coming out of your ears at that point. Your heart rate soars, you get tense, you yell at the staff, you drive angrily on the way home, and then your significant other has to deal with you being cranky the rest of the day. There’s a huge physiological effect to violated expectations, and the damage extends well beyond the situation itself.

All those issues are things that could have been managed elegantly and gracefully if you’d known about them well in advance, but they came as unpleasant surprises, so your inner dopamine addict is on a full-scale withdrawal freakout.

One missed expectation is problematic, but two or three can destroy a professional relationship forever.

Why Are We So Bad at Managing Stakeholder Expectations?

There are two main reasons that product leaders are bad at managing expectations.

The first reason is that we just don’t think about it. Perhaps we haven’t yet developed the professional empathy to realize what’s going on in the mind of the stakeholder, to anticipate how badly things might go if we don’t manage their expectations. Or maybe we’re still so inexperienced that we don’t even understand what kinds of things we should be preparing the stakeholder for in advance.

Almost anyone who’s been in their industry for any significant amount time tends to learn these things by heart. If they have a hunch that a project deadline might be in jeopardy, they start preparing the stakeholder months in advance, not a week after they were supposed to deliver it. But because new, less-experienced people are constantly coming into stakeholder-facing job positions, those lessons often have to be learned all over again—often at the expense of valuable stakeholder relationships.

The second reason is that the people on the fronts lines of managing expectations (project managers, product managers, technical or design leaders, etc.) are often “people pleasers.” Their particular dopamine addiction comes from seeing happy stakeholders, so they’re reluctant to give them the bad news about a deadline, or a scope conflict, or a quality issue.

Instead, they stay quiet, hoping the stakeholder won’t notice, or that the issue will miraculously resolve itself.

But it never seems to go that way, does it? The issue gets worse, and the stakeholder notices and is then upset that nobody warned them earlier. This in turn makes the people-pleasers miserable, because their attempt to keep people happy backfired and made for even more unpleasant conversations.

Expectations management is a game of chess, not checkers. We have to focus on making stakeholders happy six months from now, not on today’s phone call. To do that, we have to think ahead, we have to consider the long-term ramifications of every move we make, and we have to be willing to sacrifice something small in the present to make a big win in the future.

Learning from Healthcare Professionals

Patient expectations and the paradigm shift of care in emergency medicine is a journal article by Fatimah Lateef, a Director of Clinical Service and Quality at Singapore General Hospital. In it, she gives a concise breakdown of some key points that healthcare providers need to understand about their relationships with their patients. The advice can just as easily be applied to stakeholder management as well:

Some of the general expectations of patients include:

  • the need to be listened to
  • the need to receive clear explanation and instructions about their condition
  • to be treated by staff who show care/concern/compassion and
  • to be treated by staff who are professional in their work

Some examples of unrealistic expectations of patients would include:

  • wanting to discuss several major problems, all in one standard consultation
  • prescription to be given without a consultation
  • ability to call the physician 24 h a day for any problems and
  • thinking that the physician will always know the exact diagnosis at first consultation and start treatment immediately

To manage unrealistic expectations and unreasonable requests from patients, the astute physician would know:

  • that they should not allow patients to manipulate them with unreasonable demands
  • they have to take a step back and assess why certain requests are put forth. This exploration can also enhance communications skills
  • they need to explain clearly in simple terms, avoiding medical jargon, why certain treatment and management is necessary. Physicians’ logic may not be obvious to patients and our decision making can be complex, thus, the need for explanation
  • they need to be clear as to why further tests and consults are needed
  • that a patient’s request for a second opinion from another physician is acceptable and,
  • that as a last resort, the patient can be referred to another physician for care, if both parties cannot come to an agreement and see eye to eye.

Healthcare is a significantly older profession that many others, and they’ve learned a lot over the years about what works and what doesn’t. They also generally require practitioners to undergo extensive training and hands-on experience before being let loose in front of patients, whereas in many professional services industries (design, consulting, etc.) we’re much more likely to put someone less experienced in front of the stakeholder with a slap on the back and a “Good luck!”

Sure, not every healthcare provider understands these things either, and there are plenty of examples of terrible patient service (which is why Lateef and others have to keep writing these articles), but there’s nevertheless a lot that can be learned from the healthcare profession when it comes to prioritizing the management of people’s expectations.

The Documentation Fallacy

It’s a common fallacy in product leadership that documenting something (in a contract, statement of work, meeting minutes, etc.) is the same as managing expectations.

It’s not.

If you’re ever in a stakeholder situation where you have to refer back to the original project specs or plan to show why you’re right and they’re wrong, you’ve already blown it. You’re late to the expectations management game at that point.

When was the last time proving you were right and the other person was wrong ever helped you strengthen a relationship?

Here’s what should have happened in a situation like that:

  • During the project kickoff, you talked with the stakeholder about why certain limitations or expectations are in place.
  • You explained to them that it’s okay if the requirements change, but that would likely affect the budget and timeline.
  • Early on, you walked them through the different phases of the project, including a reminder about how their feedback or requests would affect the project timeline and budget.
  • As you begin showing the initial concepts, you remind the stakeholder that you’re expecting a feedback and revisions, but that it’ll help everyone if they gather their feedback as clearly and comprehensively as possible to avoid making multiple rounds of revisions that would take up more time and money.
  • As you show nearly-final updates, you remind the stakeholder that this is expected to go into production soon, and that further changes will certainly affect the budget and timeline.

The steps above require relatively little product management effort. We’re not talking about hours of work here. All that’s needed is remembering to think about these things, and saying a few words about them at already-scheduled meetings.

But it can make all the difference.

In the situation above, when the stakeholder eventually changes their mind and does want a third round of revisions, you say “No problem, we’ll update the project plan right away,” and they have no problem with it because they were expecting it all along (because you told them that’s what would happen).

However, if you neglected to remind the stakeholder about these things all along, and three months into the project try to tell them all their requested changes caused the project to go late and over budget, they’re going to feel like you’re just passing the buck.

In one case you have a happy stakeholder excited to get started on another project with you, and in the other you have an angry stakeholder who feels like you’re just causing problems for the company. Same project. Same budget. Same timeline. Different expectations.

The positive outcome really doesn’t require any major additional effort compared to the negative one. It just requires more forethought and empathy.

The Subtlety Trap

Subtlety doesn’t work with stakeholders. You can’t hint at the planned scope somewhere in the beginning of a project and expect them to remember that throughout the course of it.

Instead, you have to anticipate their potential frustration points and prepare the stakeholder long beforehand (through obsessive and even redundant reiteration) so everything the stakeholder experiences feels natural, obvious, and anticipated.

As Winston Churchill once said:

If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.

You’d be astounded at how much you can get away with if you just prepare people beforehand. I’ve seen projects run like clockwork but end with furious stakeholders because of poor expectations management, and I’ve seen projects go wildly over budget and past deadlines with ecstatic stakeholders because of brilliant expectations management.


I wish we could rename the entire discipline of project management.

If we simply called it “expectations management,” and referred to practitioners as “expectations managers,” they’d have a much clearer idea about their actual job responsibilities.

Project management isn’t about milestones and scope definitions and resource allocation. Those are just tools and byproducts. The actual job is to manage the expectations of everyone on the project, so they know how to feel about what just happened, they know what’s expected of them right now, and they know what they should anticipate happening in the future.

If you approach project management from that perspective, and remember that almost all project issues are due to mismanaged expectations, you’ll find that the quality of your professional relationships, the loyalty and enthusiasm of your stakeholders, and the morale of your staff will go through the roof.

What’s the Difference Between Sales and Marketing?

What’s the Difference Between Sales and Marketing?

There are a few reasons people can get confused about the difference between sales and marketing. One is that the words "sales" and "marketing" are often used interchangeably, and many people may not fully understand the distinct roles and responsibilities of each....

When Does Skim Pricing Make Sense?

When Does Skim Pricing Make Sense?

Skim pricing is a pricing strategy in which a company sets a high initial price for a product or service, and then gradually lowers the price over time. This strategy is often used when introducing a new product or when there is a high level of demand for a product or...

Smart People Always Want to Mess This Up

Smart People Always Want to Mess This Up

Several weeks ago, my company released a new product: a tool that helps small service businesses with client follow-up. We did it very quietly, late one night after most of the department had gone home. A few of the product leaders made the decision, flipped the...

You Know Your Core Values—Now What?

You Know Your Core Values—Now What?

So you’ve identified your core values and everyone’s excited about them. Now what?The powerful experience of identifying a company’s core values is too often followed by the unforgivable act of forgetting about them. People frankly just don’t know what to do with core...

Every Document is an Experience

Every Document is an Experience

One simple but helpful step is to stop thinking about your company’s operational documents as merely transactional tools.Every document your company produces is an opportunity to emphasize and clarify what your company is all about. Spec sheets, release notes,...

What Ancient Greece Taught Us About Innovation

What Ancient Greece Taught Us About Innovation

It’s a little disturbing to realize how much of what we do is simply imitation. If you start analyzing your business objectively, you’ll probably come to the (somewhat depressing) realizing that a lot of it is simply rehashed ideas and behaviors adopted from your...

Why I Left the Agency World to Go Product-Side

Why I Left the Agency World to Go Product-Side

There are basically three ways to be a designer: FreelanceAgencyIn-houseEach of those three worlds has its own unique complexities and challenges, and it can take some experience moving between them before you find where you belong.I’ve been on the agency side of the...