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By Tom Dennis –
President, Effective Engineering [email@example.com]
You’re just getting started on the development of an
exciting new product. The product definition isn’t really flushed out yet
and the real magnitude of the project is not understood, but everyone,
including you, is energized about the prospects of what this new product can
bring to the company. The management team says they really have to have
this product by a certain date in order to have the impact they would like.
They ask you, as an engineering manager or engineer, if this can be
achieved. Optimist that you are, not knowing the product details, and
making some assumptions, you indicate that it may be possible.
Congratulations! You have just set unrealistic expectations that you can be
quite certain will not be met.
No one intends to set unrealistic expectations, but they happen all the
time. Everyone wants new systems and projects delivered yesterday, with
outstanding quality, even if they don’t have a clue about the amount of work
involved in delivering a quality product that is aligned with critical
business objectives. Engineers are pressured to estimate what it will take
to develop a product that is not fully (or even mostly) defined. When that
estimate, for a still mostly unknown product, is viewed as too long (which
is almost always the case), they are asked to pull time out of the
schedule. Then, as the product definition starts to come together,
additional features and functions are identified and are determined to be
mandatory. It is realized that the resources needed are not currently
available. However, the end date (that was very broadly estimated in the
first place, and then shortened by pressure applied early and continuously)
is not allowed to be modified, unless it can be pulled in. Assumptions and
caveats are forgotten. [What happens when you “ass/u/me”? You make
an “ass” of “u” and “me”!]. When engineering tries to
adjust the date, they will then hear, “I didn’t set the date, you did!”
Many other departments become dependent on that date, and when you don’t or
can’t deliver, it is entirely your fault. Then it turns into “Floggings“
eN-060504 – Floggings Will Continue Until Morale Improves!”).
How can unrealistic expectations be avoided or at least reduced?
First, don’t commit to an end date until you understand what the product is
and what will be involved in developing it. Without such an understanding
you’re laying a foundation on quicksand and the probability of your
estimates being worth anything are about zero. People will want firm dates
(actually they’ll demand them), but let them know you can’t provide
estimates until you know what it is you’re estimating. If they want it bad,
they’ll get it … bad! This is often one of the most difficult tasks,
because extreme pressure is often applied to give a date that others desire,
but which may not be achievable.
People also need to realize that project plans are really just an attempt to
define how you would like a project to proceed. In reality it is a hope of
how the project should proceed, but it will change and must be managed to
adapt to and accommodate change.
Once you’ve got a good product and project definition and plan, be certain
that all of the stakeholders agree that this is what is to be delivered.
Different stakeholders often have different expectations. Sales is thinking
of how they’ll sell it; Marketing is thinking of how they’ll market it;
Finance is thinking of how it will impact revenue and margins; etc.
Determine who will be the most pivotal person among the stakeholders, for it
will be this person’s expectations that matter the most. If there are
differences among the stakeholders’ expectations, then this person will be
the one to settle those differences. Every stakeholder must be satisfied
that what has been defined matches their expectations. If your definition
doesn’t match the stakeholders’ expectations, you’ve already failed.
Now you need to manage those expectations effectively.
One key to this is knowing your capabilities; that is, understanding what
you and your team can really deliver. This must be part and parcel of the
project plan, reflecting realities and contingencies in that plan.
Another key is setting clearly defined expectations. These go beyond the
product definition/requirements and the project plan itself. They also
include defining how and how often status will be reported, how progress
will be measured, what happens when priorities shift, and how issues that
arise will be handled. As with goal setting, these expectations should be
S.M.A.R.T. – that is Specific, Measurable, Attainable,
Realistic, and Time-bound.
You must educate the stakeholders so that they can truly understand what is
involved in developing the product. Too often, they are of the mindset that
“I don’t want to understand what you have to do – just do it and don’t
bore me with the details.” With a little education, they may get a
better understanding of the impact of what they are asking. At the same
time, you need to listen to and empathize with them. They’ve got their own
concerns and business drivers that your project impacts directly. Just as
you want them to understand what’s involved for you, you need to understand
what’s involved for them. If both parties understand each other, it is
easier to communicate effectively and work more closely together and commit
to joint success.
You need to be realistic. Over the course of any project timeline there
will be shifting priorities, unforeseen circumstances, and other
challenges. Try to build a little sanity into your timelines and
expectations you set with others. Try to under-promise and over-deliver;
this works for all involved and results in win-win outcomes.
Continuously monitor the progress of the project and manage expectations on
an ongoing basis. Nothing is more damaging to reputations and business
relationships than big surprises. No one wants to be blindsided, to find
out at the last minute that key targets will not be met. Clearly set the
status, communication, and issue reporting expectations early on, and you
will have a built-in system that supports you in managing expectations.
Finally, communicate, communicate, communicate! This is key to it all.
Communicate early and often, and if in doubt, communicate some more. Use a
good communicator to interface with all of the stakeholders. Ideally, use a
single point of contact for all project status discussions to minimize the
potential for miscommunications and confusion.
It is very difficult to build a reputation as an organization that “can
do” and that delivers on its commitments with the features that
customers want and with exceptional quality. It is very easy to undermine
such a reputation by failing to deliver in any of these areas. Unrealistic
expectations work like a cancer, undermining the health of the organization,
eroding trust, and sowing doubt. Setting realistic expectations and
effectively manage expectations is one of the keys to success in any
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