Managing vs Meeting Expectations

Have you ever been on a project and heard the expression “managing expectations”? This is usually a phrase that is bandied about along with “pie in the sky” and “designing the Rolls Royce”. This is the expression I hear most often when a project is realizing that what the client wants…what the client expects… can’t be done. And so they set out to manage expectations. In my book, that’s failure, and I’d like to explain why.

‘E’ is for Emotion

When you start out to change a business, you think about the capabilities that the business needs to accomplish. You think about processes and efficiencies you could gain.  You think about how technology can support those capabilities and deliver what the business needs.  You write all that stuff down as requirements for the project, but in the process you’ve done something else. You’ve created expectations.  No, don’t go looking for the BABOK Expectations Log…you won’t find it. Expectations are not a deliverable, they are the hopes and dreams of the team that was gathered together to envision what the future will look like.  With the hopes comes the fear of disappointment that this really won’t happen.  In parallel are the fears of what change will do to my job.  And hopes that I’ll still be relevant when this is all said and done.  When you stop and look at it, what you’ve created is Emotion….with a capital E.

So then a project rolls in to deliver the solution.  The thing is, your customers, your clients, don’t care about your solution.  As Ash Maurya says:

“They just want their their problems to go away”.  

And they want all their hopes to come true and all their fears not to. From that perspective, managing expectations becomes a formalized term for confirming their fears and dashing their hopes.  Managing expectations is synonymous with disappointment.

Meet over Manage

So in that same situation where you are feeling the need to manage expectations, what if you did something different.  What if you sat down and figured out what the emotions and the drivers of those emotions are that you’re about the manage.  What if you threw out your design that won’t meet those expectations, but propose instead something else that realizes the hopes and dampens the fears.  What if instead of managing the expectations, you go out of your way to meet them?  I think we can all be pretty sure that you’d have one long-term, repeat client.

The Dark side

Now I’m a person who always strives to meet expectations.  Sure I’ve done my share of managing, but I start from the premise that if emotions are well understood, we can always find a way to deal with them appropriately.  The dark side of this is the soul crushing defeat when you fail to deliver.  You see, emotional investment is a two way street.  When you understand the emotions you’re trying to meet, you begin to empathize and in fact invest your own emotional currency into meeting expectations.  When you think you’ve done a bang up job and you’re looking for that wide-eyed, awed look of joyful surprise when the hopes are confirmed but instead you get the “oh.  that’s it?” face, all the instruments of the symphony playing in the background come crashing down around your ears.  

Let me give you a trivial example.  I like to cook, but because of the way life works out, I don’t cook most of the suppers in our house.  One day of the week, it’s my job.  Don’t worry all you primary supper cookers out there, I can already hear the “one WHOLE day…you poor thing”.  But I tell you, in this case my wife is the client and I know the emotions I’m working to:  relief at not having to cook & fear that I won’t have it done.  I know this and I want supper to be perfect and on the table as my wife and kids roll into the house.  I’m emotionally invested in meeting that expectation and denying the fear.  Unfortunately, as I write this, I have yet to deliver.  I know…sad huh?  The worst part, though, about failing to have dinner done, or failing to have done it right is not that my wife doesn’t accept the situation and is prepared to get on with it together, its that the I’ve invested so much emotional energy that I am far less able to get on.  

The danger I’ve just described…the dark side…is when you over-inflate the amplitude or importance of the emotion or expectation you’re trying to meet.  It’s a fine line finding the balance of emotional investment between yours and theirs.  Sure, its probably easier to just let the client do the emotional investing and manage those expectations.  But that’s not how the magic happens.


Jon Holt

A coach, an entrepreneur, and a no-bull advisor in growing small businesses through the use of practical strategy, light-weight governance and sitting back and thinking about running your business, regardless of what you do.

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