Manage Expectations & Communications

Editor's Note: I recently had a consulting experience that perfectly fits the importance of following the advice of this week's blog title. Please enjoy this article by Brett Harned. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at

If They Expect a Unicorn, It’s Your Fault

What are you expecting from this blog? Let me guess—it’s not a sparkly unicorn. I wish I could say you were wrong. But let me tell you what to expect: Some tips and tools to help you to better set and manage expectations on projects with your team and your clients.

See What I Did There?

I set expectations with one line. It’s all about delivery and the way you communicate details. Of course, it’s not always that easy on projects, but it’s an art you can hone and master. You are the general directing action on the front lines, and every word of your strategy is critical. So, read on for tips you can use from beginning to end on many types of projects. If you actually wanted the sparkly unicorn, you should skip this post.

Take It From the Top

The best way to set expectations is early and often. As a project manager who sits between an internal team and a client, you have to be very detailed and persistent when it comes to communications and relaying vital parameters to the collective team for what to expect at every turn of a project. If you’re not laser focused on the details, things like project requirements and tight timelines will become painful issues for everyone to deal with. If a detail is missed or miscommunicated, goals can be derailed, time can be vaporized, budgets compromised, and frustration catalyzed. And the PM will always—always—be blamed for it.

So how do you stay on top of it? From day one on a project, be very clear about what should be expected of you as the PM, your team, your process, and your clients. Every person and aspect are integral to the success of the project, and it’s better to lay it all out; loopholes all too often set the stage for scope creep to manifest

Pre-Kickoff Meetings

At the beginning of a project, set up two separate meetings—one with your team and one with your clients—to discuss all of the detailed documents and processes that will make or break your project. Thing like scope, timeline, requirements and even reviews of conversations that were conducted during the sales process can be very valuable to anyone who is invested in a new project. Examine the formal documents using a low-pressure discussion to make those things feel more accessible and understandable. This will help to ensure that everyone on the team is aware of all of the critical pieces of information relating to project formalities.

Sample Client Pre-Kickoff Meeting Agenda:

  1. Introductions: Let the clients know who is on the team and what they will be responsible for. If possible, include them in the meeting.

  2. Review Scope: Review the document at a high level. As it turns out, your client may not have read the final version of the document. Make sure they understand what is included... and excluded in your scope of work.

  3. Discuss the Timeline: Be clear about the final delivery date. Discuss reviews and approvals. Make it very clear what potential dependencies will be, and consider how you would handle potential project delays.

  4. Discuss Project Requirements: Have they been documented yet? If they have, review them and make sure that you completely understand what is expected of the project based on what they indicate. If they aren’t documented, start the conversation and talk about how you will come to an agreement on what’s needed.

  5. Discuss Project Communications: This is critical. Be sure that everyone is aware of the communication tools you’ll use, and how you best communicate. Get your team into a groove with the method and check-in routines that everyone finds easy and useful. Some people like the immediacy of phone calls, desk visits, and instant messaging, while others prefer email and notes left in online project hubs. Find that balance between real-time communications, daily or weekly reports, and everything in between. This also carries over to how you communicate with the client, since invariably what works with one may not be a good idea for another. Adjust accordingly, but determine the avenues and frequency of communications upfront and make sure everyone agrees to them.

Next Steps: It’s always helpful to recap expectations and assignments; help keep your team and clients on target by reminding them of what's next up on their plate. Take a few minutes to call out action items and next deliverables before ending any meeting.

Large projects can be complex: tasks often overlap, are dependent on other tasks, or are so voluminous in scope that more than one team member ends up working on it. If you don’t set expectations on who does what, when, staffing can get confusing all too quickly. Be sure to assign specific project roles and the explicit responsibility for each task, as well as making sure that communication is flowing according to agreed-upon standards. A helpful tool in helping to determine team responsibility is a RACI matrix, which describes the way various roles participate in completing tasks or deliverables for a project or business process. It is especially useful in clarifying roles and responsibilities in cross-functional/departmental projects and processes.

It’s also important to make sure the entire team takes responsibility for documenting meetings. Often, a PM will be responsible for this, but there are tons of meetings and conversations that a busy PM will miss out on. So, don’t always rely on one person for notes; make note-taking and circulation a shared responsibility. For instance, if you’re in a hallway, and something exciting or impactful comes up organically in a discussion, don’t forget to document it. Taking three to five minutes to share potentially critical info with your team could save you from time and budget worries. Using a web-based tool to hold all of that information will facilitate good communication and knowledge sharing. Half the battle in the war against poor communications lies in knowing when and where communication should happen and how it will be documented.

Talk About Process and How You Will Work

Every project is unique in some way. Sure, there may be shared approaches and deliverables across projects, but discussing how you’ll use them on each project is critical to each project’s success. Follow the tips outlined in Chapter 3 and you’ll be establishing expectations for the process, deliverable reviews, stakeholders, and your timeline--all in one fell swoop. Easy!

Conduct Status Meetings

There is no better way to set and manage expectations than by just checking in with your team and your clients. Whether you’re a one-man team or on a team of 20, working in an office or remotely, sharing progress is one of the most important things you can do to keep communications flowing.

Team Status

In general, a 15-minute in-person (or via Skype/phone) review of the day’s tasks is a nice way to catch up with your team and can work to your advantage. There are several ways to conduct a status call, so be flexible and work with your team to determine what to do.

Simply go around the room and give everyone a chance to talk about what they’re working on that day. A quick check-in will force everyone to organize project priorities before the meeting, adding to a feeling of accountability for tasks. Before wrapping things up, it’s always helpful to ask, “Does anyone need help, or have time to help with tasks if needed?” Doing so helps you to build trust and rapport with your team.

How you approach status meetings will depend on the project you’re working on, your team’s schedules, and maybe even the intensity of the work. At some points in a project, you might feel like you need to check in a few times a day, maybe because you’re handling a lot of moving pieces or you need to make sure everyone is on track. Remember: communication is good!

Client Status

A Good Status Report Covers:

  • What was done last week
  • What is being done this week and next week
  • Action Items
  • Update on timeline
  • Update on budget
  • Potential project risks

Lastly, don’t forget to have a bit of fun with your status meetings. Use the time to catch up with your team and clients on non-work-related topics.

It’s a good practice to keep an open, consistent line of communication with your clients. Ensure that you’re staying current on all project issues by providing a weekly status report in the form of a written notification or phone call, and check in regarding alignment with project objectives.

Progress reports not only help you and your clients stay on track, but they also help keep you honest about your work, process, budgets, and issues. Making the time to sit down and discuss these things pays off regarding your relationship with the client and with helping your team see it through to completion. When you conduct regular status meetings, you’re ensuring that the expectations you established, in the beginning, are consistently reviewed and reaffirmed as you go through the project.

Are you going to go over budget on a project? From a client’s perspective, there is nothing worse than finding out about a project issue that could have been avoided until it’s too late. Use the status report and meeting as a way to communicate and discuss the issue. So pull that report together, hop on the phone and keep an open dialogue going.

Foster Good Communications

For project managers, it always comes back to being a good communicator and facilitator. If you’ve done your job, a communication plan lets your team know that over-communication is welcomed--your project will feel open. The team will always know what is happening, will set their own expectations, and will likely meet timeline and budget expectations without question. If your clients’ expectations are outlined and discussed, they’ll be happy that they’ve helped you to meet or exceed them, and will be reassured because they most likely know what to expect from the final product.

Quick Tips To Keep Expectations In Check:

1. Create shared to-do lists. Lists always help to track tasks, milestones, and related deliverables. When your whole team has access, there’s never a question about who is doing what and when to expect task completion.

Once you’ve got your list documented, make sure you’ve clearly assigned responsibilities and check in on them. If you’re seeing that a team member is behind, be proactive and comment on it through the shared to-do list. The point of an open list is to make sure that you’re all up to date on the status of work at all times. A list like this will foster real-time communication, whether that be through in-person discussion, instant message, a TeamGantt post, or email. The idea is to work in the open and share progress to build team support. This is the type of activity that helps teams build trust and gain project efficiencies.

2. Don’t worry about delivering bad news. If you think something might go wrong, talk about it. There is no use in keeping worrisome news hidden. Be sure to always keep a “Risks” section in your Status Report, because the last thing you want to do is surprise a client with news that something is going over budget or past your timeline. At the end of the day, this is business, and if you have the project’s best interest in mind, you’ll look for and be honest about those risks without question.

Keeping an eye on those risks can also help you to anticipate the needs of your team or your client before they even realize they exist. When you do that, you feel like you’ve won.

3. Ask questions and listen to responses. Don’t be bashful about figuring out what you may not know or understand. Chances are, asking questions will help you and your team sort out expectations related to project requirements, feedback, processes, and even the client’s happiness levels. When you hear an answer, don’t take it at face value. Think about how it may impact your project--and follow-up with more questions (if needed, of course).

Did You See That Unicorn?

By now, you’ve realized that setting and managing project expectations is not as challenging and scary as it may seem. What it comes down to is that you must communicate early and often, document conversations, and continuously follow-up with the collective project team to keep things straight. If you passively let things work out on their own, you’ll not only kill your project; you’ll lose the trust and respect of your team. So be proactive in setting expectations and keep an open line of communication, and you’ll find that sparkly unicorn. (Okay, maybe not…)

Next Week: Insist On Clarity!