As project managers, we know there are the triple constraints that are used to determine project success: cost, schedule, and scope. So why would a project that met all constraints be considered less than successful? The answer to this is expectations. Objective measurements were met, but stakeholder expectations were not. Most stakeholder expectations are never disclosed to the project manager.

This leads to another question, if stakeholder expectations are important enough to determine a project’s success, then why are we not paying more attention to them? The simple answer is expectations are not necessarily rational and usually do not have tangible metrics associated with them. Project managers are skilled at following processes to deliver the final results a stakeholder asked for (tangible) but it does not necessarily equate to what the stakeholder felt they actually needed (mostly intangible). Stakeholders view the project team as a problem-solver and expect the right problems to be solved even if the stakeholder cannot articulate the right problems. They do not see it simply as getting what they asked for.

In any case, a project manager would see the projects as a success if it was delivered on time, and within budget and scope. But if the solution does not meet the stakeholder’s expectations, is it really bringing the value it was undertaken to bring? We all have expectations.

There is a biological basis for expectations

  • Expectations are linked with the release of dopamine and the reward circuitry, which provides a pleasurable feeling.
  • Perception filters filter out information that does not fit with our present situation. The perception filter also interprets non-verbal communication and can be wrong and manipulated. Stakeholders could assume the project team knows their expectations because of how they perceived an interaction with the team.
  • When an expectation is not met, the dopamine levels fall steadily which leads to a very unpleasant feeling. Therefore, if you perceive something good is going to happen, or that something that is going to happen will be good, your dopamine levels go up. When that expectation is not met, your dopamine levels go down. So, when we talk about meeting expectations, it does not always mean that we have to do exactly what the stakeholder expects, but we do need to recognize the expectation and address it accordingly.

How can we better meet expectations?

You simply cannot meet an expectation that you are unaware of. The best way to make sure that you can address ALL expectations is to take steps to determine ALL expectations. Get to know your stakeholders, ask questions to determine the real problem the need solved even if the real problem is not specifically known by the customer. Once you know what the real problem is, determine the customer’s vision once the problem is solved. What do they see as the outcome. A vision is defined as a description in as much detail as possible of a scenario that occurs in a problem-less domain. By asking how they are going to know their problem was solved typically helps expose expectations that otherwise may have not been realized.

In general, complaints are unmet expectations. This can be resolved by simply removing the expectation, even just pointing out that an expectation is unrealistic can help negate or reduce the negative flow of dopamine.

To some degree, you may be able to control the occurrence of expectations. The longer an expectation continues to be unaddressed, the harder it is to address it.

In Conclusion…even if you work with your stakeholders, talk about their expectations, and deal with any unrealistic expectations, there may still be unstated expectations. Stakeholders do not always know what they expect. We, as project managers, need to do our best to catch all expectations as early as possible and deal with them immediately.