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The Expectations Game

Did you ever take on an assignment at work, or try to implement something at your company, that sounded so good—but turned out so wrong?  I mean, you did everything you said you were going to do, when you said you were going to do it, and the boss–or the employees–or the client—was still dissatisfied.  I have.  In fact, I just came from a meeting with a client who will probably cancel a project that’s only halfway complete.   It was painful.  I walked into the meeting room and ten or twelve people, hands folded and heads in their chests, stared mutely ahead as if the methadone clinic had just made an office visit, while I was figuratively toe-tagged and put on a slab.  I squirmed for an hour and a half while I heard how the software template that took me a year of work didn’t hold any value for the company.  To me those words sounded like Captain Quint’s fingernails scraping across the chalk board at the town hall meeting; “Aye.  You gotta shark out there…a big one” ringing in my ears.  Three weeks earlier I thought everything was hunky-dory.  I realized then that I had lost the expectations game–mine, and theirs.

The basic project management problem illustrated above is, and will forever be, a communication breakdown.  You’re tasked with implementing a major change at your company.  The following four myths about the way you communicate, and to whom, are smack dab out of the Implementation Failure Handbook.

Myth #1:  Don’t Be Too Specific About the Outcome. 

The more vague we are about the outcome, the less we can be nailed down if things don’t go exactly as planned.  As long as we have a general idea about what we want out of the project, we’ll be fine, right?”  Wrong!  Whether you’re a plant manager implementing a new ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system or a consultant proposing a profit improvement job, you need to be extremely specific in the outcomes you set.

Try to learn from my own recent mishap.  I thought everyone knew what the deliverables would be on a project designed to help the company measure their true costs.  I wrote what I thought was a pretty good proposal.  We had about five meetings prior to starting the project.  So where did I screw up?  Well, different people at the table wanted different things out of the project.  I heard them but didn’t really listen.  I told the customer what I would deliver, yet I wasn’t specific on what would not be delivered.  Consequently, at the completion of the project, I was looking at disappointed faces and defending my position (the last place you want to be if you’re a consultant).  The customers thought they were getting something more, or at least different, than what they received.

If you’re trying to improve your business and want to get people on board for success, be specific about how life will change after the improvement.  Your employees are your customers.  How much money will the company save?  Exactly how many people will you hire—or fire—if things go as expected?  How is the bonus plan being affected in dollars and cents?  Put your projections in writing.  It gives people something to focus on, helps set realistic expectations, and provides you with CYA material if your need it later on.

Myth #2:  We Can Make Changes Over a Handshake.

In the consulting profession there is a bogeyman in any major project that is taken on, especially if the job will be done for a fixed price.  That monster is called “scope creep”.  Scope creep is where goals, outcomes, and directives change during the course of the project.  Stuff begins to be included in your scope that was never intended to be there.  What’s worse, you might not be able to deliver it at all!  I’ve seen scores of projects go bad due to scope creep because the changes in focus were handled with a handshake—a verbal commitment.  The consultant didn’t put in writing what the new deliverables were and he didn’t relate how this change would affect the overall price of the project.  Ultimately, the customer is always right, so even if the consultant delivers, he ends up doing extra work pro bono.

During any implementation of major significance at a company, changes in scope are inevitable as you go along.  Make sure these changes are clearly communicated in writing to the resources, the people that are helping implement, and the stakeholders, the people affected by it.  The last thing you want when it’s all over is to have surprises.

Myth #3:  I’m Sure It Will All Come Together in the End.

You may be thinking that you could never fall into this one, right?  You would be shocked if you knew how many project managers and customers let situations spiral out of control in the name of “not losing momentum.”  Consider this: if your objective is to drive from Maine to Florida, and by New Hampshire your ten degrees off course, wouldn’t it be better to know it then and make corrections?  Of course it would, or else you’ll end up with a lot of momentum in Texas!

If you’re making things happen at your company, and early on you or someone else notices that you may be off course, it is incumbent upon that person to speak up and call for an investigation.  Re-group and re-think.  This is usually the job of the resources, advisors, and the people affected by the change.  Often the leader of the project is so immersed in the trees he can’t see the forest.  He’ll happily proceed along the path that looks right and is totally wrong.  In a country with a divorce rate approaching 50%, when you see something amiss at any time during the big project, “Speak now or forever hold your peace.”

Myth #4:  They Don’t Need to Know.

This is the biggest management mistake that I’ve seen made during ten years of consulting.  People surf the Internet.  They have a network of friends in high places inside and outside of the business.  Trust me, they’re going to find out!  Problem is, if you didn’t tell them and it affects their working lives, expect resentment and sabotage.  If your making a major change at your company, you cannot over-include people in the distribution of information.  This doesn’t mean you put too many cooks in the kitchen, it means you tell everybody and solicit opinions and suggestions.  This is in chapter 1 of the Successful Projects book that I keep in my subconscious mind.  If you want buy-in, tell people what’s going on from the beginning.  Put it in the company newsletter, send it in corporate email messages, and shout it from the highest mountain.

Back to my example.  At the meeting where I was handed my head about missing the project mark, several of the people holding the guillotine cord required an introduction.  The most vocal antagonist was a person I had met for the first time when the project was over.  He was never included in any discussions about the project, had the results foisted on his plate, and was asked for critique.  What would you have done?

If you are responsible for implementing major changes where you work, one measure of success is meeting or exceeding the expectations held by the people those changes affect.  Communicate specific outcomes, clearly identify changes in scope, derail obvious problems early on, and leave nobody, and the columnist means nobody, out of the information loop, and you’ll win the expectations game.

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