Businessman holding elephant above his head

Manage Stakeholder Expectations: 5 Steps to a Big Job

If you arrive on time for a doctor’s appointment and wait ten minutes before the exam begins, chances are, you will be satisfied with the schedule. This is true even though the doctor was late. If we examine the reason for your satisfaction, we’ll see it’s because you received what you expected. Your expectations regarding doctors and punctuality were properly set.

This odd little phenomenon works the very same way on projects. If the stakeholders’ expectations are properly set and managed, the project will be considered successful even though there may be some small performance issues.

This post suggests a five step process to better manage stakeholder expectations. Hopefully, they will help you  push marginally performing projects into the category of success.

What Are Stakeholder Expectations?

Stakeholder expectations are the stakeholder’s vision of the future state. Make no mistake, these expectations are powerful. They’re powerful because the stakeholder becomes emotionally invested in them.  He or she invests in them by feeding them considerable amounts of time and energy.

Once stakeholders form their expectations, they begin to make plans and consider different courses of action. They begin to engage in internal dialogue and they begin to make decisions based on their expectations.

The Problem with Unmet Expectations

The moment it’s discovered that the future state doesn’t match the expectations, every second of that time and energy is considered lost. It’s intellectual waste. You can be certain there is a positive correlation between the amount of time and energy a stakeholder feeds an expectation and the level of frustration or anger he or she experiences when the expectation is not met.

Because project success depends on managing stakeholder expectations, it’s some of the most important project management work that’s performed.  Here’s a valuable, five-step process for moving you forward.

First Step: Identify the Expectations

If you don’t take the time to identify stakeholder expectations, you’ll miss most of the opportunities to manage them. Expectations aren’t just the images we paint for others; they are also the images others bring to the table.

To begin identifying expectations, start talking about them. Discussions regarding expectations should begin as early as possible and it should definitely occupy some space on the kickoff meeting agenda. Consider documenting the expectations of all stakeholders and project team members. Once identified, they can be analyzed and influenced. Include the expectations in your Stakeholder Management Plan.

Second Step: Analyze the Expectations

With the identified expectations in hand, begin analysis. In particular, look for expectations that don’t meet the requirements of the project or the terms of the contract. These are the expectations that need influenced.

Third Step: Influence the Expectations

The best opportunities for influencing stakeholder expectations occur during the project initiation and planning processes. This is the time to really dig in and involve the stakeholders. Share the project requirements and engage them in the planning process.  Become available, share your thoughts and survey the thoughts of your stakeholders.  Remain transparent and earn trust. Throughout it all, don’t forget to stay self-aware. You’ll find that some of your own expectations may need influenced, as well.

Fourth Step: Set the Expectations

Now that the stakeholder expectations are understood and better aligned with the project requirements and objectives, it’s time to “set” them. Left unset, they have the potential to change and become difficult to manage.

To set an expectation you simply become clear about the direction and boundaries of the future state. This happens in planning.  Here, the project roles become clarified. The scope is identified in detailed and a plan for managing it is implemented. The terminology is unambiguous and it provides everyone with a common understanding. The quality requirements are captured and the acceptance criteria are established.

Once the direction and boundaries of the future state become clear, they are communicated. Everyone is provided with the information they need to properly set their own expectations.

Fifth Step: Monitor and Control the Expectations

As the project progresses, stakeholder expectations can change. By monitoring them throughout the project, swift corrective measures can be implemented, if needed.

The best way to monitor stakeholder expectations is to place the in-progress work in front of the stakeholders at regular and frequent intervals.  This provides the project manager with opportunities to receive feedback and note the differences between what is being delivered and how it is being perceived. Where there are differences, there is room to better manage expectations.

Lifting Elephants

Managing stakeholder expectations may not be as challenging as lifting elephants, but it can be a big job. If you break it down into five manageable steps, you’ll be more likely to push a marginally performing project into the category of success.

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