Expectation setting for dummies

I don’t really mean you’re a dummy. In fact, you’re no dummy… which is why you’ll wholeheartedly agree with me that the relatively simple act of setting expectations – at work and at home – is oddly hard to do.

Success isn’t some nebulous, unquantifiable thing. Simply put, the measure of your success is determined by the expectations you set. You set the bar. If you reach it, you’ve succeeded. It’s an amazingly straightforward concept. So why is setting expectations so consistently problematic?

Um, you didn’t set expectations. We’re all guilty of it. You’re excited to begin your project of solving your client’s massive problem X. Your client is excited to get started, too. So you jump right in. You’re making progress, feeling good about your work, and getting good interim feedback. You prepare for the big unveil of your masterful solution (it’s so damn pretty!). To your dismay, your client isn’t thrilled. It’s not that your work isn’t good – it’s just not what they expected. And therein lies the rub. It’s crucial for collaborators to agree on what success looks like from day one. Accordingly, a set of clear, measurable expectations outlining what project success looks like should be a part of your initial conversations. They should be echoed in your scope of work. They should be revisited during project kick-off. It’s also a best practice to create milestones demarcating interim successes throughout the project. And at the end of the project… yep, that’s right: have a closing conversation with the client about whether the stated expectations and milestones were indeed met.  

You didn’t set CLEAR expectations. Above, I talked about making sure the expectations you agree upon are both clear and measurable. Thus, despite what my inner Minnesota-nice idealist might wish to think, the following are NOT clear and measurable expectations defining success:

  • “Everyone is happy.”

  • “You do your best.”

  • “We all have a super-nice time.”

Getting specific helps with the clarity requirement – making sure you’re clearly defining what the desired outcome or result looks like. Making sure an expectation is measurable, however, is a little more complicated. If an expectation is measurable, that means that specific criteria are being met. For example, the following would be appropriate clear, measurable expectations to set:

  • By the end of the month, everyone will have completed their assigned portions of Sections A, B, C, and F, providing them to Lisa via email in editable MS Word format.

  • At project close, the client will have received and approved an implementation workplan that includes proposed dates, item owners, and activity descriptions. The workplan will include weekly status update calls and at least two interim Go/No-Go checkpoints prior to completion.

  • By the second Thursday in July, everyone will have finished eating his/her own bottle of paste (Elmer’s, 2 oz. size).

To make sure you create expectations that both parties agree upon as “success," it will likely require some back and forth negotiation between the two parties. It will be more than worth your time, however, when at the end of the project you’re not arguing about whether the project is a success. One way or another, it will be clear and inarguable.

Before I close, I’ll share a mantra I’ve adopted – a mantra I’ve felt compelled to share with countless others over the years, given how incredibly many times it’s helped to save my hide and my sanity: under-promise and over-deliver. When setting expectations about timing on a given task: First, ask yourself – realistically – how long you think the task at hand will take you. Then, add a fairly solid cushion of time to that figure. Finally, tell them you’ll provide whatever-it-is it to them by that second, heavily cushioned figure.

That way, if/when you DO finish earlier than that cushioned figure, everyone’s totally jazzed about it. You look amazing. You are a be-caped superhero. But you’ve also given yourself a little leeway for, you know, LIFE, the time-suck that is your oversharing coworker, or the time you went into an internet K-hole learning about Billie Holiday’s stint in prison.

If you over-promise and under-deliver, however, you’re screwed. You suck. You can’t be counted on. You had the best intentions, wanting to get it done as quickly as possible. But it turns out you set the bar too high, and you missed the mark. If only you'd given yourself more time, you could've been the hero. But now, you suck, and they can't see it any other way.

Start being smarter about where you set that bar. It’s as simple as that. Say it with me now: under-promise and over-deliver. Make it your new mantra, too. You'll end up happy, contentedly heedless of the fact that happiness isn't clear OR measurable.