Managing Expectations

Here is the background on this series, and here is the previous post on this series (Managing Work).

In this post, we are going to try answering the question: How does a manager as important as him (and holding as many resources) manage expectations from other senior managers and executives without over-committing his team or himself?

If you try to look for writings on the topic of managing stakeholders, you will find very tactical things (“Managing Stakeholders“, “Project Management Success“), some useful tips (“6 steps to success“) and some philosophy (“Managing Key Stakeholders“). In any organization, there are a lot of internal stakeholders (“a person or group that has an investment, share, or interest in something” – matrix organization‘), there will be much more communication-related expectations, organizational cultures that are very results focused may want you to keep improving your efficiency and keep delivering more, managers (or organizations or culture) who focus on long-term growth and vision may pose stringent requirements for people growth, and so on. Dictionary.com) for any given work. For example, in a typical software product development company, a manager in R&D group typically has these stakeholders: his/her manager, managers in peer disciplines (dev, test, operations, etc), product manager(s), heads of engineering, marketing and support organizations. Typically, stakeholders exert enough influence directly or indirectly on your work to make a significant difference to the outcome (positively as well as negatively) and hence it is important to manage their expectations.

There are three aspects of expectations from these stakeholders that Ravi needs to keep in mind:

  • Project-related expectations
    • Deliver on time, with quality
    • Deliver more every time than before
    • Be the savior when tricky problems (customer issues for ex) arise
  • People-related expectations
    • Mentor ICs to be better at their work
    • Grow leads, managers, and otherwise smart people
    • Have low attrition
  • Communication-related expectations
    • Do not surprise them with late-breaking information
    • Incorporate their ‘feedback’ into your work

Some of these are obvious, some not so; for ex, delivering more every time may not be possible at all for some teams, controlling attrition may not be in the hands of the manager alone, etc. Not knowing the expectations is the worst thing that can happen to a manager, so it is important to spend some time in identifying various stakeholders and their expectations.

Once the stakeholders and their expectations are known, we need to understand why these expectations exist, otherwise figuring out the most efficient solutions may be difficult. One of the frameworks I have found to be useful is to think about them in the context of People (working styles of individual shareholders), Culture (culture of the organization), and Structure (organizational structure). For example, in an organization where dotted line relationships are prevalent (‘

To understand the reasons behind the expectations (and hence figuring out the solutions), asking some of the following questions can be useful:

  Questions to ask Possible solutions
People
  1. What is the working style for this stakeholder (controlling vs. empowering, participative vs. command-and-control, decision-making, works with less information vs. more information, etc)?
  2. What are the personality traits to be aware of (opinionated vs. data driven, logical vs. emotional, people-focused vs. results-focused, etc)
  1. Provide the right amount of information the stakeholders need, and in the form they need it in (executive summary vs. excel sheet full of data and charts, preferably both).
  2. Address what is important in the stakeholder’s mind (if they care about people, make sure they know about what you are doing in that front, be aware of it when you present, anticipate their questions, etc).
Culture Asking some of these questions about a given stakeholder help figure out the culture-related expectations:

  1. What is more important – delivery (on-time) or results (giving value to customer)?
  2. What is more important – doing right things for people or delivering results?
  3. How is performance going to be tracked, measured and rewarded?
  4. How are decisions going to be made?

You need to look for clues for answers to these questions, what people say is usually different from what people do

  1. Figure out whether the culture you espouse is aligned with what your stakeholder has. If they don’t, you need to work hard to adapt to it.
  2. Set very clear goals, objectives and measures of success list that you and your stakeholder(s) agree to.
  3. If you cannot make your stakeholder agree to such a list, you need to be very aware of changing expectations.
Structure
  1. What is the influence that stakeholder can generate (some of it comes from the way organization is structured, formally or informally)?
  2. Are there clear lines of authority or are they blurred?
  1. Identifying stakeholders in modern organizations can be tricky because of informal structures that overlay on formal structures. Reviewing what happened in previous important projects give clue many times.
  2. Understanding alignment (and mis-alignment) among stakeholders themselves is important, look for informal relationships and structures for clues.

 

Once we know the reasons for expectations being there in the first place, we need to prioritize these and address them. Most of the time, your manager and your department head are two most important stakeholders and keeping them aligned can secure their help in aligning with others.

A quick note on communication is in order. My experience has been that some of the (surprising) expectations exist because many stakeholders feel they do not know as much about the project as they want to, and hence pose (sometimes unreasonable) goals for the project in order to achieve what they need. For example, if a stakeholder insists on weekly/monthly demo of the progress, it is possible that he/she thinks the requirements are not captured properly. Understanding their requirements, and making sure they understand “we understand their concerns and will act accordingly” goes a long way in avoiding this unnecessary overhead and also keep this stakeholder aligned. While communication (which includes listening and comprehension) is not a solution for every stakeholder expectation problem, it helps in surprisingly more number of cases than we realize. The golden rule of communication that I have found useful: “Communicate early, Communicate often, and in right language“. As mentioned above, personality and culture differences makes one-size-fits-all communication impossible in case of stakeholders, so think in terms of ‘peeling onions’ approach: executive summary for those who trust you with details, charts and graphs for those who are visual in style, excel sheet for those who want to verify for themselves, but everything on demand (rather than packed in an email/zip) so that people can choose what they prefer.

To summarize, here are the step-wise process Ravi should follow:

  1. Identify all stakeholders
  1. Identify all the expectations
  2. Understand why these expectations exist and how they can be satisfied (root cause)
  3. Prioritize stakeholders as well as their expectations.
  4. Identify solutions that address the prioritized list.
  5. Communicate early; communicate often, and in right language.

Most managers are smart enough to figure out various solutions to various expectations that are posed to them, but the trick is to find solutions that fit with each other, and with what you and your team really wants to do; doing something only for the sake of a stakeholder expectation (which happens in many organizations) causes extra work, frustration, and inefficiencies in the team and hence should be avoided at all cost.

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