“What do you mean, ‘it can’t do that’? That’s not what we understood / were told / led to believe. You have to change it but don’t think for a minute we’ll be paying for it!”
Recognise this? It should be familiar to all Project Managers. With expectations being set so early in the engagement cycle it’s no wonder PM’s spend significant amounts of time managing and / or realigning them. Life as a PM would be so easy (boring?) if this effort wasn’t necessary but expectations are established early and to complicate matters further often vary significantly between stakeholders.
What are expectations and where do they come from?
An expectation is when a person has a strong belief something will actually happen or be the case in reality. In terms of projects, stakeholders are disappointed when what happens in reality doesn’t live up to or match their belief. If we separate sales from implementation we can quickly see how expectations are formed and where sales can confuse implementation.
The Sale is the pre-requisite to Implementation, that much is obvious. Simply put the buyer wants something that meets certain pre-defined requirements and the seller thinks they have the very thing that will satisfy those wants. This information is shared between the two parties during different stages of the sales process. But what’s shared isn’t always the full picture because:
- Focus is on key or critical processes only
- The end-to-end process isn’t always understood internally
- Many process steps are simply forgotten
|Requirements analysis||As-Is Needs Analysis:Companies have a tendency to look inwards capturing the As-Is or status quo and labelling it as business critical, rather than defining the To-Be organisation to support the future business and the gaps to fill in order to get there.||To do the same and more, faster, cheaper and with a shiny new wrapper.|
|Meetings and Discussions||Fragmented Dialogue:Information exchanged during discussions may answer isolated questions but make little sense when reviewed against the bigger picture.||The complete process has been fully understood in its entirety.|
|Demonstrations and References||Selective Functionality:Demonstrating how a business critical process can be handled without showing every step in detail.||The end-to-end process is satisfied and all complexities are clear.|
|Proposals and Documentation||Positively Pitched Documentation:Words have a universal dictionary meaning however they’re not used universally which can influence interpretation. Stakeholders then add their own interpretation which creates another layer of meaning that usually remains unshared.||The stakeholder will receive exactly their interpretation of the meaning.|
|Commercial Agreements||Vagueness and Legalese:Lawyers review the wording, clauses are changed, details are vague and assumptions are made that remain undocumented and not communicated to the implementation team.||The contract confirms the customer is always right.|
Once formed every conversation the stakeholder has or document they read will further embed or increase these expectations so by the time the implementation cycle begins they’re set.
Because expectations are the beliefs of individuals we shouldn’t automatically judge them as right or wrong. As implementation begins the PM has to figure out what expectations do exist, how they formed, what they’re based on and where realignment needs to occur. I say realign rather than change because while you can provide all the information and knowledge to support a position and influence realignment, only the stakeholder can change their mind.
Realign for project success
In order to realign expectations the PM must be both informed and objective. Ideally the PM gets a thorough handover from the sales process but unfortunately it usually consists of a quick rundown on general agreements and requirements supported by a few documents for the PM to interpret. Therefore as implementation kicks-off the PM must quickly:
- Understand stakeholders existing expectations
- Uncover the basis of their formation
- Identify realignment opportunities where necessary
Perform a simple audit by reviewing all existing documentation including the contract, any schedules, project charter etc. Also review any assumptions or notes attached to other documents such as the business case and budget calculations. Capture the mismatches by identifying issues and contradictions. Work with the team to come up with solutions and any associated costs, timeline changes etc. Table these with the Sponsor as early as possible in order to gain agreement or direction, support and assistance with re-educating and realigning other senior stakeholders. This isn’t a one off exercise. Projects benefit when the PM keeps this the output as a point of reference and maintains it throughout the implementation. Chapter 4 of Todd Williams’ book “Rescue the Problem Project” provides excellent guidance when it comes to auditing project documentation.
Whether the PM has access to all documentation or not it’s crucial that every conversation is a fact finding conversation. Talking is one way but an interactive conversation yields more information especially if conducted in an informal relaxed environment. PM’s can check what they learn against their cross-reference output, seek further clarification and engage in realignment discussions if needed.
All stakeholders need to be aligned with the direction set by the Sponsor. Sharing the cross-reference results while practising active listening means the PM can drill in to what isn’t being said and rise above the detail to objectively observe activity. Staying in constant touch and open dialogue engages key stakeholders who can then assist with realigning others.
The differences between the sales process and implementation will always be there but with a bit of effort a PM can use every discussion, issue raised or risk mitigation plan as an opportunity to realign expectations in the project and across all project stakeholders.
Deanne Earle is an expert at initiating, leading and delivering change projects. She has 20+ years of experience in a wide range of initiatives that have spanned the US, Singapore, China, Australia and more. In 2004 Deanne founded Unlike Before Ltd and the firm is based on the principal that change doesn’t have to be difficult. You can connect with Deanne on Twitter and also follow her blog.