It’s About Managing Expectations

Some time back my team was asked to take up a critical project on short notice. My product manager and I found out about the project on Monday evening and we were told it needed to ship on Friday the same week to 3 client platforms with a small team. We had just four days to make this happen and the date couldn’t move so we had to work with the other two project levers: changing the amount of work we would deliver, and putting more people on the project. The latter famously only helps so much. I want to share how we got many people on the same page and kept them there by managing their expectations.

What are expectations?
Expectations are things people believe will happen in the future. Unmet expectations can lead to unfortunate outcomes like duplicate effort, missed opportunities, or worse. Managing expectations is the act of making promises you intend to keep, making sure other people are on board with the plan throughout the process, and bringing them along when things change. Managing expectations helps us avoid unfortunate outcomes, sets a baseline for accountability, and builds trust that can lead to new opportunities.

The first step my PM and I took was to get each other on the same page. That night we discussed our approach and how we’d divide the work. We also decided we would not block on each other when making decisions. This helped us move more quickly and cover for each other when issues came up. We wrote a plan early Tuesday morning detailing our recommended approach and the timeline on which we would deliver the project. We planned just one and a half days for engineering and half a day for QA. That meant we’d ship Friday on one platform and branch for release on the two others that required a longer release process. We chose this approach so we could understand the effect of our change in one market before going global with it. This gave us confidence and helped us get buy-in from a bunch of folks. We deliberately chose the smallest amount of work we could do that would meet our goals. We also let our team know something disruptive was coming and that we’d share more as soon as we could.

Our plan included other solutions we considered and why we had ruled them out. We did this to avoid spending time going back and forth negotiating what we’d build. In this case our primary stakeholders were a few decision makers farther up and peers from other teams, some of which our change might affect. We made sure we had the go-ahead from the former, but later found out two peers had concerns about the plan. Given the tight timeline we’d gone for the simplest option, which was to turn off their unshipped features temporarily when our temporary change was enabled. We talked with our peers and shared our constraints with them, then agreed to keep their features enabled on a best-effort basis. Their features were complimentary so this was the right thing to do in the end.

My take-away from this was it’s important to check my assumptions about the expectations others have of me and my team because approval from decision makers isn’t the same as a mandate. I now ask myself what expectations I have of others, and what expectations they have of me and I try to answer those questions before moving forward.

Sometimes these expectations are clear, but what if they haven’t been said aloud and agreed upon? In my experience this ambiguity leads to misaligned expectations and in turn the sort of unfortunate outcomes mentioned above. I address this by asking questions that might seem silly in my mind and by stating my understanding of our shared expectations aloud. I’ve found others often have the same questions so they end up being not so silly after all. When stating shared expectations I talk about next steps, who is accountable for them, timelines, and expected communication cadence. This gives others a chance to correct our shared understanding. I also ensure decision makers are explicitly onboard with the plan and timeline, not just initially but also throughout the product process, even if the plan does not change. This is important because even if my team’s plan doesn’t change, the plans of adjacent teams or the company might change, and that could affect the relative priority of my work. Another mistake I’ve made in the past is assuming a lack of response to an update was the same as continued approval. I now like to ask for explicit confirmation or feedback on updates so I can work to address concerns if needed.

With everyone on the same page, we shared the plan with our engineering team and asked if they could meet the timeline. This was mid-day on Tuesday. It was critical to have their okay on the plan because they were the ones that would make the changes we had in mind. They said yes, and we told our stakeholders we were good to go. We were now accountable for the work and the timeline. This wasn’t about taking blame if we failed so much as having an understanding of our goals, and knowing we needed to share progress and roadblocks along the way. We gave regular updates on our progress, which in this case was at least twice a day given the nature of the work. We also shared new decisions we made knowing we could adjust later if needed.

Managing Expectations
We’ve talked about how to get everyone on the same page, but we haven’t talked about how to keep them there. That entails communicating with people based on their role with some regularity. Here I ask myself what information the people I’m communicating with need to do their job and how often they need it. In other words, it’s not enough to “manage upward” — you need to manage communication in every direction.

For instance, a high level decision maker likely doesn’t need to know every detail of my team’s project, but they probably want to understand whether progress is being made, whether it will ship when they expect, and if we need help. Our updates to decision makers on this project were on the order of a few bullet points, which we followed by answering any questions they had. Peers might expect more detailed updates relevant to their role.

I mentioned we shared updates at least twice a day on this project, but communication cadence depends on the circumstances. I think about sharing updates at a cadence that keeps my work top of mind, but not so often that I’m not conveying meaningful progress. The idea is to make sure stakeholders don’t feel out of touch with your work. Knowing you’re making progress also helps when it comes time for them to shelve projects that aren’t working out.

You made it all the way to the end of this post so I suppose you want to know how the story ended: we shipped on time with happy stakeholders and our change met the goals we set in our plan.

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