It’s All About Setting Expectations!
(*this is post#1 from my 100 Conversations mission*)
Our fundamental role as designers and project managers is to be effective translators. We need to recognize that our skills and specialties are alien to most of the people that we work with. Extra effort IS required to inform them about what we do, and how they fit into a good project process.
I will be adamant about this. Almost ALL of the pain that you and your staff (and your consultants, and your prime, and your children, and your dog) feel is due to expectations not being managed effectively. I’m not blaming you… I’m blaming the typical process that we consultants seem to keep on using over and over. Namely… no process.
This starts to get metaphysical, but probably the best discussion you could have with your client is establishing expectations for setting (and maintaining) expectations.
RULE #1: Set a Process for Expectations
Think about any friction that you have had in your life. I bet that most of them likely came down to (mis)communication, and probably could be described as being due to mismatched expectations. Mismatched expectations become conflict when we don’t have a process in place to deal with them.
Imagine a different approach to project management where we made the time at the beginning of job to better define HOW we would manage our management process. Yes… that sounds kind of dumb when I re-read that sentence, but the intent is that we simply explain to our client that our goal is to:
- Establish their criteria for success and the extent of expectations that should be understood. (contracting)
- Take the time to confirm our mutual understanding. (confirmation)
- Recognize that changes will be needed, and potential conflict may arise. (anticipating)
- Establish a process for how we will address any need for resolving changes to expectations. (recontracting)
- Determine how success will be measured based on their criteria and expectations. (achievement)
- Validate an opportunity for lessons learned. (growth)
I think we do an okay job of numbers 1 & 2, but the rest have varying levels of success depending on our communication skills, and whether our client has someone with previous related experience or not.
If you already ‘get’ where I’m going with this, check out some of my other blog posts now. If you’d like to hear more, read on.
Our days are full of implicit contracts: I’ll pick up some milk. Sometimes they include explicit contracts like the Prime and Subconsultant Agreements I signed yesterday. We are very intentional when we are signing and dating a document, and less intentional with our implicit agreements. The latter has defined and legal ramifications if we don’t follow what we’ve agreed to do. The former doesn’t really have the same level of potential ramifications, except perhaps annoyance.
The purpose of contracting is to orchestrate the various components that need to be completed in order to achieve successful completion of a task. We can only achieve this is if we agree upon what success looks like. “We would like dessert tonight for my birthday. We need milk. I have a meeting, so you get the milk. I’m looking forward to my favourite tasty dessert.”
If you forget the milk, then we don’t even get to the point of assessing whether the dessert is tasty.
Communication is challenging. It’s a little easier when we have shared experience and shared vocabulary. I spoke to this a little in: Asking the Right Question . “I know you like it when we make it with whole milk, so I’ll pick up a half-gallon of whole milk. Are there any other ingredients we need?”
With that we take the first step in confirming the specific request (milk) and we do someone the favour of bringing it back to the big picture of success (the dessert and how they like it). This shows shared management and responsibility for success. We step up from being a mere errand runner, to someone with illustrated buy-in. “No. I checked the cupboard and we have everything else we need.”
Your errand is confirmed. You have helped confirm a pathway to success.
Stuff happens, so why not anticipate a process that builds-in an expectation that change or flexibility might be needed? “I’ll call you from the store to see if you think anything else we should get.”
So we have a system in place to plan for the fact that life is messy. “I’m at the store. Apparently the cows are on strike and there’s no dairy available. Can you believe that? I know you wanted that dessert, but I was thinking maybe I could bake your favourite cake instead?”
You could have simply not picked up the milk and gone home, and explained that they had no dairy. This would have illustrated that you missed the point of the whole exercise: a special dessert. Instead, you check in and develop mutual control over the situation. Not only did you check in to recontract, you also showed initiative in offering a potential solution to the situation.
“Weird about the cows, but since you mention it, cake does sound pretty good.” You have a discussion and you revise your plans to accommodate the unknown. The pathway to success is significantly different, but you achieve the end goal of a tasty dessert.
When you have finished eating the whole thing(!), you both agree that next time contracting with a contingency plan would be helpful. “The cake was delicious. If cows ever go on strike again, cake can be a pre-approved alternative.”
Rule#2: Establishing and Managing (the right) Expectations
Let’s bring it back to consulting.
You’re probably familiar with the concept of time, quality and cost. It’s also visualized well with the saying, “Fast, cheap and good… you can only choose two.”
Since quality is normally a final assessment, we can look at scope, schedule and budget as being the main factors to achieve desired quality. Risk and resources are important as modifiers to the ‘formula’ as they can add additional stability (like more skilled workers), or instability (eliminating schedule contingencies). The more pressure that is put on any or all of scope, schedule or budget… the more likely it is that things will deviate from expectations.
So… make no promises is the best solution! (joking)
As consultants, we have great systems for establishing scope and budget expectations. Where we (and our clients) get into trouble is with management of scope. I’d like to think that we’re too nice or too naive, but regardless… the fact is that we don’t set up realistic expectations that balance scope/schedule/budget, and we certainly don’t act in anyone’s best interests when we don’t tightly manage these.
It’s really hard to say no to a client (until you have shared systems in place). That’s why pre-development delivers bloated space planning and project programming to schematic design. We waste so much time, effort and money because we don’t establish realistic expectations grounded in scope/schedule/budget. The ultimate blame for this lies with the prime consultant, but it also sits with the client. Well… us subconsultants are also guilty when we don’t speak up, but we often aren’t invited into the big picture. Most of the time the problem lies in the fact that the client doesn’t have the money for the project they WANT… and we certainly wish that we could always give people what they want!
Finding the project they NEED is essential before project expectations are set. See Trying to Avoid Work to Benefit our Clients.
The take-home message from this is to set a process for managing expectations, and this is grounded in some intensive work at the beginning of your project. During this period of expectation contracting, make sure you ask the HARD questions at the beginning of the project. If experience is worth anything, I’d say we need to talk about:
- We will have some tough conversations. We’ll have a process in place for these conversation, and we’ll try to anticipate them to the best of our abilities.
- We need to both have a shared understanding of what ‘perfect’ means for this project. Let’s try to visualize what success means. What are the ten things that you need to see when you are looking around at the ribbon-cutting?
- You probably won’t have the budget for what you want. We’re going to focus first on making sure you get what you need. We don’t want to ‘value engineer’, we want to ‘value design’. (**for those that don’t know ‘value engineer’… it’s a hilarious industry term for deleting things to reduce costs***)
- We’re going to work hard with you to make sure this project is right-sized for you. You save a tonne of money when you don’t build things!
- Let’s have a discussion about how you will learn to use your new building/landscape… and that there will be challenges. Imagine reorganizing your kitchen for efficiency. You know you’ll spend a month or two trying to remember where something is, but in the long term it will be better for you. New buildings and sites are the same, and come with frustrations until you’ve learned them.
- What other painful conversations did you have during a project which you could have had at the beginning? There’s nothing wrong with discussing previous challenges with your clients in order to show them that you learn, and you don’t want to revisit them again.
It’s impossible to write one blog post to cover setting and managing expectations. Remember that the take home message is not just set expectations. You also need to recognize that they will need to change, and that a process for expectation management is critical..