I Wasn’t Expecting This! Five Tips for Mastering Expectation Alignment

By Lonnie Pacelli


Some time back I was the executive sponsor responsible for developing a facility strategy for a new line of business. I empowered one of my project managers to develop the strategy which we would jointly present to our management. We both had visions of what we expected in the strategy but I didn’t ensure our points of view meshed.. My project manager was very competent in her job; however mind-reading was not one of her skills. The day before we were due to present the strategy, I did a walk-through with her. It wasn’t anything like I envisioned, and I knew the strategy in its current state wouldn’t be well received by our management. We went through a fire drill to get the strategy to a state where I thought it would be better received. We survived the review with our management, but it didn’t go nearly as well as it could have gone, and we went through a lot of pain (including a sleepless night) to rework the strategy.

I don’t fault the project manager one bit for the misstep. It was totally on me that the strategy wasn’t what I was thinking because I didn’t ensure our expectations were aligned at the outset. I also didn’t put checkpoints in place along the way to ensure we stayed aligned. It cost us not only in additional work but in relationship trust. I blew it.

My story unfortunately is just one of many I’ve seen and experienced through the years where expectations were misaligned. Due to my experiences I’ve become manic about setting and aligning expectations, so much so that when I get misaligned it’s like being punched in the gut. It’s at the leader’s feet to ensure clear expectation alignment when empowering someone to get something done. Those leaders who just expect someone to ask the right questions on the what, who and when of getting something done are just asking for frustration and rework. This is a “measure-twice-cut-once” application; a little extra work up front to ensure alignment can save a lot of downstream pain.

Need help to better define and stay aligned on expectations? Consider the following five tips:

  1. Be crisp on the what, who and when – Expectation alignment starts with an intentional understanding of what needs to be done, who needs to do it, and when it needs to be done by. Be specific, including specific dates and named owners. Also take time to understand other’s expectations and drive getting to a common vision.
  2. Wireframe the deliverable – For a more complex deliverable it may be worthwhile to wireframe out what the deliverable needs to look like, whether it be a table of contents, a picture, or some other means that brings clarity to what “done” looks like.
  3. Take regular checkpoints – Develop an agreed-upon follow-up rhythm to ensure that deliverable progress is on track and any deviations can be caught early. See my article on Fostering a Follow-Up Culture for more.
  4. Outline clear actions if there is a deviation to the deliverable – It’s certainly possible for there to be a deviation to the deliverable whether it be content, date, or some other factor. Ensure clear agreement exists among stakeholders as to how changes will be communicated, what decisions the deliverable owner can make, and what requires agreement among the stakeholders.
  5. Articulate the consequences of misaligned expectations – When expectations do get misaligned, be clear on both the business impact and how stakeholders are impacted. For example, misaligned expectations may mean a date slip which might impact downstream activities. Being clear about the consequence helps keep everyone aligned on the importance of producing a timely desired result.

As leaders, it is your job to take the lead on clearly aligning expectations for delivery. In this “measure-twice-cut-once” approach, well defined expectation alignment means less execution friction. Your team needs it.

Lonnie Pacelli is an accomplished author and autism advocate with over 30 years experience in leadership and project management at Accenture, Microsoft, and Consetta Group. See books, articles, keynotes, and self-study seminars at http://www.lonniepacelli.com




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