There are certain statements about the job of a manager that can’t be repeated to often. Here are two of them: Under-promise and over-deliver -and- Clarify, clarify, clarify.

The reason for their importance is that mismanaged expectations are not only “one of many”, but even “the one and only” reason for failure. So why is that? Because “failure” always means that someone’s expectations regarding your results were quite different from those you actually achieved. Of course the degree of failure always depends on the significance of the people who have those expectations, but the fact remains that “success” is not something that exists in a vacuum – it always involves judgement about the work that someone performed and judgement is only possible in relation to a certain set of expectations.

In the end, not managing expectations is and always will be the only reason for regarding work or its results as failure. Or, as J.D. Meier put it: “Managing the expectations as the stakes go up, becomes increasingly important in how your work is received, acknowledged, and rewarded.” – or to quote General George Patton: “Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom.” (read more here)

So how can we manage expectations effectively? As always, the first thing to do is to acknowledge that there are expectations somewhere and invest time to understand them. The most efficient way to do that is very simple: Ask the right questions!

In our basic consulting seminar we have a section called “assignments & expectations”, which I already described partly in my blog post “How to Approach New Assignments”. The second part of this section is basically about how to invest time for negotiating what success means to the important people around you. Some of the vital questions we suggest to ask are the following:

  1. What is your perspective on the current situation?
  2. What are your minimum requirements for a desirable outcome and what would success look like?
  3. What are your goals in this given context and what else is important to you?
  4. What should be my goals from your point of view and how would you proceed to achieve them?
  5. What kind of backing / support can I get from you?
  6. Which early wins should we aim for without sacrificing sustainability?
  7. How would you set priorities within the current context?
  8. How can we win other stakeholders to our way of thinking?
  9. How can we team the necessary mindset that enables change to other stakeholders?
  10. How can we keep other stakeholders focused on what is really important?

Of course there are many more questions you can ask, but for successfully managing expectations – and in a way avoiding outright failure – these should be the vital few.

The second key to successful expectations management is: Keep asking! Just having some initial answers to the questions above might be fine for a limited amount of time, but expectations inevitably shift and often change drastically over the course of a relatively short time frame. Therefore, establishing a routine for periodically reassuring that you’re still on the right track is equally important for performing well and achieving success.

The third recommendation we give is embodied in the two statements at the beginning of this post: Always reduce your commitment to the lowest common denominator and never promise anything you can’t keep. In addition, always restate your understanding of every agreement and ensure that everything you say has been understood in the same way by all stakeholders.

If you keep these principles in mind and take the necessary actions, you will probably still fail – but your degree and your rate of failure will be much lower than your rate of success. Even more importantly, however, will be the trust and the faith people will have in you and in your ability to produce successful outcomes. And that is something money can’t buy.