10/01/2019

By Susanne Turnbo, Partner

During an ice storm in December 2013, we lost power for four days when our city experienced record freezing temps. So, what does one do in this situation? You go to the mall of course. Then you talk about holiday shopping (but not actually do it), meet the balloon artist, critically debate or perhaps argue points on food court options, grab a cocktail, and then cap that off by seeing a movie you’ve never heard of. Yes, indeed we did all these things with our toddler-aged children in tow.

The movie we saw that day was called Frozen. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It was the only option available for us and honestly, we were just killing time – we had no preconceived notions. The result? Our experience was extraordinary. The expectations were so nonexistent for the movie that what happened created a memory for us and our children that we will never forget.

Is it possible that our lack of knowledge about the movie could have impacted our experience and perceived outcome? If someone had built up the movie, or we had heard of it before, would we have enjoyed it as much? All of this is wrapped up in the complicated world of expectations.

In both business and non-business environments, we hear people refer to setting expectations and managing expectations. This is probably not only one of the keys to happiness, but also a critical component of success. On a professional level, many of us have experienced first-hand how mismatched expectations can result in less-than-desired outcomes. That doesn’t feel good. You could have done everything right, but if the audience has unrealistic or misaligned expectations, it doesn’t matter. It is a perceived failure, and failures happen to good people.

Could it be that managing your stakeholder expectations, and your own for that matter, could have a direct impact on results? Yes, and quite possibly it is a lynch pin to success.

In both business and non-business environments, we hear people refer to setting expectations and managing expectations. This is probably not only one of the keys to happiness, but also a critical component of success.

There are some tools that can help you better manage the slippery slope of expectations.

First, at the very beginning of every project clearly state, in writing, the scope and objectives.

Be honest about what can be achieved, even if it’s not everything your audience wants, and by when. It’s better to have these hard conversations early and upfront versus shattering the culmination of months and months of unrealistic expectations at the end. Joining an effort midstream? No problem, there’s no better time than joining a new team to have these conversations. The longer you wait the harder it gets.

When left unmanaged, our expectations have a way of morphing into what we hope or need something to be, versus reality. And as humans, it’s natural to be optimistic in the absence of any signals telling us otherwise. Our minds help us out on this quest by forgetting some of the details over time and rewriting the narrative in our heads, especially when we are under pressure.

People working in software development know this well. This type of work can be among the most difficult to manage expectations due to the wide range of possibilities, and promises, made along the way during the long implementation lifecycle for new systems. Agile helps take the edge off by showing users outcomes faster and at more frequent intervals, but it isn’t a cure all.

Consider taking some time upfront, or at any point in the project, to solicit and document the key success criteria for what you are delivering.

Without this, teams get misaligned on what success looks like at the end. More than the scope, it’s determining what are some key parameters that can be identified to call victory when achieved. Keep these high-level and focus on the big picture.  Without this, people may assume by the end that the project will solve all of their problems, like solving world peace and doing their taxes, among other things.

Don’t forget to engage with your Organizational Change Management team to make sure the right things are being communicated at the right times.

Many people think that OCM is just communications, but it is so much more. On complex efforts, it can help identify and remediate resistance within the organization. OCM also helps create buy-in through strategic stakeholder engagement.

Once expectations are set, that’s where the management of expectations comes in. Plan on needing to revisit and repeat these tasks at regular intervals for your more complex implementations. After all, alignment on expectations is not a permanent state, and they constantly stray.


Back to the ice storm and the movie – it was so unexpectedly entertaining that the kids let us relax and we almost forgot about the ordeal happening outside. One of us might have taken a short nap too, but don’t judge. Regardless, it is a day we will never forget – thanks to the power of expectations (and Elsa, Anna, Olaf, and Kristoff).

Could it be that managing your stakeholder expectations, and your own for that matter, could have a direct impact on results? Yes, and quite possibly it is a lynch pin to success.

Susanne Turnbo

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