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Mastering Expectations Management: A Key to Successful Project Delivery

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”  Atticus Finch, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.


I’ve spent my career in project delivery. The longer I do it, the more one theme resonates through every project, regardless of industry, technology, or methodology. It’s Expectations Management. Sounds simple, right? But it's more nuanced than many people realize and not a skill that comes naturally to everyone. It must be constantly refined for the message and audience. Here are four things I consider when I craft a communication.


1.    Who’s my audience?

2.    What do they care about?

3.    Why do I need them to care about my message?

4.    What do I need them to do with the information?


In my experience, Senior leaders want to know the big picture. Are they getting what they asked for when expected, and when will they begin seeing their investment results? If they need to be aware of or act on something, tell them precisely what you need from them and by when. Many don’t have time to be in the weeds, but it’s always a good idea to have those available if they ask.


Early in my career, a mentor shared a valuable lesson: assume a senior executive will never open an attachment. This advice has shaped my approach to communication. I now ensure my key message is conveyed clearly in the email body, even when sending attachments. This practice respects their time and ensures they grasp the essential points.

If I am on a call with these executives, I plan how to communicate my message. I need them to have the appropriate context without rehashing every minute detail. What salient points do they need, and what do I need them to do with that information?


On the other hand, internal and external project stakeholders require a more detailed understanding of the project’s progress. They are often the first escalation point in resolving issues and risks and must be well-informed. They are particularly interested in specifics around problems, risks, and progress against schedules or outcomes. Providing this level of detail ensures they feel informed and involved in the project's journey. 

I like a stoplight or Red/Yellow/Green approach when considering the audiences above.  

Green: We don’t need to discuss any of these things- they’re occurring precisely as anticipated.

Yellow: You need to be aware of this situation and what we are doing to resolve it. I will keep you regularly updated on it, but it may impact an outcome or a budget, so I want to ensure you are informed. 

Red: I need your action to help resolve this issue. We have a specific challenge impacting outcomes or budget, and here are the actions we are taking to fix it, along with the level of the impact.

What about the team members? People want to understand their role and how it contributes to project outcomes. Setting that expectation as team members join is essential. I hold a kickoff meeting with the team to review the scope of work and our expected outcomes, any dependencies, anticipated challenges, technologies and processes we will use, and general timelines. I also allow time for questions and offer to speak one-on-one with someone if that makes them more comfortable.

It takes practice to collect relevant information at multiple levels and distill it into meaningful messages for the respective audience. Understanding what your audience cares about and how they prefer to take in information goes miles toward fostering a trusting relationship with team members and stakeholders inside and outside your organization.


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