If we were to search the Basic Services section of our contracts for the phrase “expectation management,” we would come up empty. Our contracts describe our services and establish performance expectations, but they do not stipulate a requirement for managing the expectations of others.
On the rare occasion a client is dissatisfied, we might hear with great sincerity that we could have better managed expectations. Is the client really saying we should have lowered expectations for a project; and if we had managed these diminished expectations and met a lowered bar, that the client would have been more pleased with our performance or the outcome? Perhaps, but I think the goal of meeting and exceeding expectations has been unwittingly replaced by a lesser request of managing expectations. We keep report cards on projects, and similar to our contracts, we do not have a ‘managed expectations’ review category – our grading occurs exclusively along the scale of performance and whether we met expectations, not how well we managed (or manipulated) expectations.
This does not mean our partners don’t demand and deserve expectation management. It’s the language of our time, and clients need a framework at the onset of a project as to how things are predicted to unfold, and they often rate our management of their expectations just as sincerely as actual performance. In response, we work as professionals to diligently set, refine, and exceed expectations. Walking through project responsibilities and sharing our time, quality, money triangle helps, as does carefully coupling budgets and scope. Quality baselines, programming, and attainable goals lead to meeting or exceeding expectations through performance.
While over-promising and under-performing damages relationships and reputations, the opposite course of under-promising and over-delivering by way of expectation management is a fundamentally non-optimistic approach for creative endeavors. The answer, therefore, is simple. Communicate clearly, perform well, meet and exceed achievable goals; and in turn, have fewer unmet expectations to manage.