I think there must be a class for orthopedic doctors when they’re in school about how to tell clients they may never walk again. If you have a case where 5% of the surgeries are not going to work and 95% of the surgeries are going to work, I think the doctors are taught to say “there is a good chance that you will never walk again”. In most cases the surgery is successful and the patient thinks their doctor is one of the best doctors in the world. One in 20 cases does not work but the patient knew ahead of time that they would probably never walk again. There probably isn’t a class like that, but it’s an example of how expectations can be managed.

Managing expectations was one of the hardest most important things I tried to get my employees to understand. Because they were good conscious people, they wanted to please the clients. If the client needed a project done by Friday and the employee thought it was possible, they agreed to the Friday delivery. If everything went great and we delivered the project on Friday the client thought we were a competent company. If any of the many things that could get in the way of the project happened and we were late, the client would be disappointed and angry.

If I could get my employee to expect problems and tell the client the project would be done the following week and we got it done by Friday, the client would think we were a great company. If the project went into the next week the client thought we were a competent company. What we told the client did not affect when the project was delivered, only the expectation of the client.

A rule of thumb for estimating is to generate your best estimate, double it, and add 20%. I don’t know why this works but it seems to be a good rule to use for many projects. When I got my employees to use this rule we ended up with happy clients.

The following videos humorously demonstrate the principle.

Another consequence of managing expectations is avoiding as much as possible having to work in a crisis mode. A crisis mode is great for focused attention on a single objective. However, the attention of the group becomes focused on the urgent items which are not necessarily the important items. Stress builds and people become tired and frustrated. This is not a path toward maintaining a happy productive workforce that feels respected and valued.

About the Author(s)

William Fay

Most of my work has centered around the design and management of large field operations. Informing each individual what to do, what equipment and parts to take, work location, work to be done, and providing work reporting. Projects included mineral exploration, environmental monitoring, and electric power distribution systems.

SCORE Mentor

Key Topics

Goal Aspiration Expectation Encourage Dreams Concept