Controlling expectations

In 2001, I met with 25 industry project managers to share lessons learned and techniques to set, monitor, manage and reset client expectations and increase the probability of successful project implementation. Many of the suggestions apply to government project managers.

Among the tips were:

1. Identify your stakeholders. Who has a vested interest in your project? Who has resources you need or will ultimately approve your project? Make sure you build a good rapport with these people.

2. Establish success criteria. You and your client should agree on what constitutes project completion. If you don't achieve this understanding, you may never finish the project. Criteria are especially important on fixed-price deliverable tasks.

3. Get a solid start. Conduct thorough kickoff meetings and carefully document objectives, milestones and client responsibilities.

4. Review project status. Maintain a project plan. Review it weekly or biweekly with your team and the client.

5. Know your contract. Refer back to it before agreeing to additional tasks. You are responsible for controlling the scope of work and changes to it. Ignore the contract at your peril!

6. Be careful what you promise. Be willing to say no — nicely, at first, and more strongly when necessary — either when something your client wants is not in the baseline requirements or statement of work or when a request is unreasonable or unethical. Furthermore, you want to say no when it is something that would not be in the client's best interest. In such a case, you can say, "Our experience tells us that." But when you must say no, try to offer a more attractive alternative that solves the client's problem.

7. Actively seek feedback. Be willing to listen to your team members and client regarding what is and isn't going well. You can't fix a problem if you don't know about it. The issue you ignore or refuse to hear about could surface at a later date to torpedo your project.

8. Avoid surprises. When you discover potential problems with the project — such as risks and limitations — that may affect the outcome, develop contingency plans.

9. Communicate regularly. Recognize the major client relation danger signs such as a lack of regular communication between you and your client, fear of talking to your client about something specific or, even worse, about anything at all, or uncertainty about your client's approval of what you are going to deliver.

10. Be proactive. Get your project out of trouble by listening to clients and understanding their concerns. You also need to bring an executive when you need to demonstrate commitment or when you have bad news. Finally, be honest: It's easier to remember the truth you told a month ago than the lie you told yesterday.

Lisagor is program co-chairman for E-Gov's Program Management Summit. He founded Celerity Works LLC in 1999 to help IT organizations accelerate and manage their business growth. He can be reached at lisagor@celerityworks.com.

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