Saturday, December 1, 2007

Expectation Management

Isn't just doing a good job, good enough? In Software Architect Bootcamp, Raphael Malveau and Thomas J. Mowbray, Ph.D. write about why mastering the art of expectation management is key to your success.

A Powerful Weapon in Psychological Warfare
Malveau and Mowbray write:

"Expectation management is one of the most powerful weapons in psychological warfare. In expectation management, people take their instinctual need to disparage the ideas of others and use the technique consciously, regarding their own ideas as they present them to other people."
Overemphasize the Negatives
Malveau and Mowbray write:
"The concept is simple. People know that if they announce that an idea will deliver wonderful benefits, others will be dissatisfied should their expectations not be met, and could lose confidence in the promiser's ability to produce in the future. However, using the technique from expectation management, the promiser will carefully articulate the potential good and bad outcomes, perhaps even overemphasizing the negatives. Then the same idea and having achieved the same outcome, those promised will be pleasantly surprised because more was delivered than they were led to expect!"
Under Promise and Over-Deliver
Malveau and Mowbray write:
"This technique is essential for group dynamics (e.g., meetings). One should always promise less than can actually be delivered. In meetings, one should tell people clearly what they are expected to do and explain the caveats (i.e., expectation management), and often they will overachieve."
Perception of Underperforming Despite Performance
Malveau and Mowbray write:
"Ideally, expectation management is a form of truthful disclosure. By telling people the truth about the potential outcomes, a psychological framework of expectations is established. In reality, a person can contribute to the causes of a situation, but cannot control the absolute outcomes. If that person does a good job, he or she is contributing to the desired outcomes. Most timnes, he or she will be able to deliver upon expectations. Without managing expectations then, one will frequently underperform in people's perceptions, even with the same outcomes. Applying expectation management is a highly recommended technique; it can be quite useful and provide benefits every day."

Key Take Aways
I agree with the point that managing expectations is key to success. On my team we call it, "perception engineering." While under promising and over delivering is a good rule of thumb, the risk is you underwhelm people and lose their support. I think the real keys are.

  • Articulate the risks. It can be easy to get caught up on focusing on all the positive, at the expense of calling out the risks. It's tough to trust risk-free promises of a great future.Calling out the risks, and demonstrating you have a fallback plan for issues that can arrise is a more effective strategy. It shows you've thought through the problem. This also helps set the frame that things can go wrong, and if they do, nobody is surprised.
  • Keep your stakeholders informed. Know what's going on and tell the people who care. Nobody likes surprises. Involving people earlier versus surprising them later tends to be more effective over time, for both building trust and for managing expectations more effectively.


Marc Woodman said...

Nobody likes surprises.

J.D. Meier said...

I agree.

One thing that can make avoiding surprises tough is the idea that it's more effective to ask forgiveness than permission.

I'm actually surprised how tough it is to effectively manage expectations, whether it's your manager, your team, your org, your customers ... etc. It's definitely an area for continuous improvement.