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How to manage expectations

We are all familiar with the process of agreeing a deadline with a customer or manager which we later find difficult to meet. This may be because we want to demonstrate our effectiveness, or it might be that we have not completely understood the time commitment required. So, how should we go about managing expectations, meeting deadlines and maintaining that all important work life balance?

• Understand what is being asked of you. Ask for some clear guidelines and information about what outcome is expected of you, in what timeframe and if relevant, what additional support you have available. Ask questions and clarify any grey areas from the start.
• Be aware of what your capabilities are. When you are asked to start a new piece of work or project, take a look back over similar work that you have completed. Consider the timeframe, but also the other commitments you had whilst this work was taking place. This exercise will provide you with information to make a more accurate estimate of a completion time.
• Be honest about what you can achieve. One person tells their manager that they will have a piece of work done in 2 weeks and completes it 3 days early; the other says it will be done in a week but actually takes an extra 2 days. Although the first took longer to finish the work, the manager would have been happier with the result – even though the work was exactly the same. The key is to understand that it is not about the length of time it takes to do the job, but being realistic and then meeting, or even exceeding expectations.
• Take in to account your other commitments (work and personal). You may feel that the task you have been asked to complete may take 5 hours per week for the next 4 weeks, but bear in mind the potential for other urgent work and forthcoming deadlines when agreeing completion dates.
• Make expectations explicit. Be clear from the start of a new piece of work about what the completed work will look like or include. This can provide the opportunity to explore the differences between your understanding of what is expected, and your managers’ – meaning that you can reach agreement and compromise if needed.
• Utilise a variety of communication techniques. We all understand and interpret information in different ways, and so when communicating with someone about how a piece of work or project will look once complete, try to find out how that individual likes to receive information, and then make use of appropriate words, imagery, physical objects, models, or animation to communicate your message. This will ensure clarity at all stages.
• Address difficulties earlier rather than later. When considering the process of your work, try to look ahead and anticipate where you foresee issues arising: plan in adequate time to overcome these.
• Regular and clear communication. Communication is central to success, however it is better to know if there is a delay or an issue rather than to have no update at all. Tell your manager or colleagues as soon as possible if there’s going to be a delay or if you are experiencing difficulties. In longer projects, schedule regular updates to keep everyone informed of progress (even if the message is “I’m still on schedule to finish by the agreed deadline.”). If the situation changes then highlight this as soon as you can.

Further reading

If you have identified that you would like to develop further, more in depth knowledge this topic, then you might wish to consider reading Managing Expectations: Working with People Who Want More by Naomi Karten. The book has an IT orientation, however has some practical principles which can be applied to most work situations.