Time to Face the Music: When Expectations Meet Reality

January 20, 2020

Unrealistic Expectations

The importance of setting expectations cannot be understated – especially in project management. Clear expectations help define project goals, assign roles and responsibilities, and the set rhythm for the overall engagement. This is why every successful project must begin with a good, realistic set of expectations to serve as guiding principles to navigate the waters ahead.

However, expectations should never be static. While setting expectations is important, they must be revised appropriately as the project progresses to adjust to new information not previously available. Not revising expectations can quickly turn what was initially seen as a good target into a dangerous anchor, especially through troubled waters.

Unrealistic expectations can be as, or more, dangerous than having no expectations at all. That is why the best overall advice is to set expectations early and often.

Managing Expectations is Tough. Not Managing Them is Dangerous.

A recent client is an example that illustrates this well. Their engagement began in typical fashion – with an unknown road ahead but very high preconceived expectations. (This is why it is best for an organization to bring in experts like The Shelby Group, as we can pull from past experience to help to guide clients through their journey).

Looking to move to a new purchasing tool, this client needed help with implementing a replacement. As the organization started to brainstorm their needs, it became evident to them that this would not be an “out-of-the-box” or “cookie-cutter” implementation as they first expected. Having highly complex use-cases and business processes meant that this would need considerable platform customizations and integration work. When the expectations were first established internally for this company, they did not factor the customization work into the timeline.

On paper, it is plain to see that these preconceived expectations were overly optimistic but when initially planning, the company had only a limited knowledge of their chosen e-procurement platform and even less knowledge about the typical level of complexity involved in an implementation. As we always say, in the beginning, “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Luckily this client was proactive about making adjustments, but what happens when client expectations don’t adjust? Or don’t adjust enough?

Reality catches up.

When legitimate complications arise, friction can begin to slow the process if expectations are not adapted. Many times, companies take to pointing fingers internally to place blame for delays rather than actively trying to align on a process to re-align expectations and get back on track. This behavior leads to reduced productivity and lower team moral.

Without agreeing and sticking to solid operating rules, clients run the risk of creating an environment in which everyone is speaking past each other without moving the ball forward. Moreover, without adjusting expectations when appropriate, issues compound and magnify – leading clients to take on more risk as the pressure mounts and the timeline looms large.

Ultimately, unrealistic expectations can lead clients to multiple timeline delays, reduced scope and uncertainty around the Go-Live date.

Final Thoughts: Expectation Calibration

In the mix of project goals, expectation calibration needs to be part of every client’s proprieties. Calibrating one’s expectations leads to better decision making – allowing teams to solve for problems based on an accurate picture of current state of the project and not unrealistic preconceptions. This is why a reality check needs to be done purposefully and regularly to avoid self-deception and secure project success.

Of course, this is easier said than done for clients – competing projects priorities, pressure to manage internal expectations and daily job responsibilities leave little time for purposeful self-reflection. A common reason for this is that clients often don’t make time to ask one question: all things considered, does this new information impact what we thought was possible?

Instead, of asking this very important question, clients ask “how can I fit everything I wanted into this new, reduced timeline?” Of course, it seems self-evident what the issue with this approach is, but this is not intuitive to clients in the middle of an implementation. This is why it is important to listen to an objective partner whose job is to assess and balance feasibility and risk for the project. Because the truth is, while “lessons learned” recalibration sessions are valuable, they typically require the luxury of a second (or third) try and typically happen after the damaged has occurred.

By setting expectations early, revisiting often and calibrating appropriately, clients can improve performance, team moral, minimize risk and reach their (realistic) project goals.

To learn more about how The Shelby Group can help your company manage and reach its procurement transformation goals, email us at

You can also find more information on expectation management within our Executive Steering Committee eBook.

By: Miguel Ortega, Senior Consultant