Skip to main content
  1. Learn
  2. Project management
  3. Posts
  4. 12 ways to effectively manage project expectations

12 ways to effectively manage project expectations

PostsProject management
Guest Post

Guest Post

November 01, 2023

The effective management of project expectations is extremely important for project success. Why? Because when a client receives what they bargained for, they’re happy. And when a team delivers what they promised, they’re also happy. 

Clear and open communication, alignment of ideas and principles, and proactively anticipating future challenges are all necessary for the smooth sailing of a project. It is also essential to be flexible since surprise challenges can always crop up. 

In this article, we will explore how you can avoid unhappy clients by avoiding unrealistic expectations and fostering a collaborative and informed atmosphere. We will delve into the importance of open communication and having a clear process and give you tips for running your own projects. 

1. Set reasonable expectations

Your first goal when you are setting up your project for success is to establish realistic and clear expectations from the get-go. It is vital that any stakeholder involved knows exactly what a successful project entails.

Considering a practical example, if you are managing a PBX virtual VoIP project, you need to clearly communicate to your client how long it might take to switch over from the old phone system, as well as any training required to help their staff. 

While this might sound like common sense, you have to help your client to set reasonable expectations. It’s not always easy! When your client is a billionaire who is used to people saying yes to their every request, it can feel a bit daunting to be the person to have to say “no”.

2. Start early

The earlier you start to set those reasonable expectations, the greater the chances of having a happy client by the end of the project. If there are some firm boundaries you know you cannot cross, be clear from the very beginning. Don’t say “maybe” if it’s a definite “no”. 

3. Offer your client alternatives

You may not always be able to achieve the exact outcomes your client or boss is hoping for, but you can offer them more reasonable alternatives. You can use a pitch maker to help with wording this. Obviously, you want to get as close to what they want as you can, but when that’s not possible, you can offer them other, more reasonable, attractive alternatives. 

A wedding venue, for example, might not be able to accommodate a massive chocolate fountain, but maybe they could offer chocolate fondue for all the tables and a regular water fountain. 

4. Use data and evidence

Executives might have high expectations that a project manager might have to handle and manage, bringing it closer to a realistic scenario. The project manager has to be willing to establish boundaries and push back on overly high demands. 

Data and evidence to support any pushback will be greatly beneficial. You can use feedback and lessons learned from previous projects, as well as similar projects by other companies. You need to take into account cost as well as hours of work needed for the project. 

5. Define what resources you’ll need

Once your goal is decided, it’s time to figure out what you need to bring it to fruition. Figure out how many people you need on your team, the budget, and any contractors, rented equipment, or new tools. The key thing is to approach the project as a united team, working together to deliver something everyone can feel happy and proud of. 

6. Make sure the contracts are crystal clear

One of the easiest ways to manage expectations as a project manager is to have a very clear contract. Any requests or changes should have a clear process that needs to be followed. Any delays in project delivery should have clear consequences outlined. 

This is also the best way to show what is and isn’t included in the price. Nothing should be left to chance, and no assumptions should be made. Asking the right questions is also vital. You could ask some of the following:

  • Has this team ever carried out a similar project? If so, what lessons did we learn? 
  • How do we decide who will work on this project? 
  • What is the budget and what does it include?
  • What exactly is included in this project scope?
  • What should the deliverables be when the project is complete?
  • What is the logic behind the deadlines that were decided?
  • What milestones are we expecting to reach?

And, when working with contractors: 

  • What does the quote include? Are labor, taxes, software tools, materials, and fees included?
  • What isn’t included?
  • Are there any other products or services that should perhaps be added? Why?
  • Are there any extra potential charges we should be aware of?
  • Could anything impact the cost of this project, or the delivery date?
  • How can we do this more efficiently or cost-effectively?
  • Is there enough padding built into the timetable in case of unforeseen setbacks?

Even with the greatest timetable and team, you can still come up against strange and unforeseen challenges. By figuring out what parts of your client’s startup ecommerce store project are blindspots for you, you can find out who to consult for those areas and decrease your likelihood of failure.

7. Learn how to manage change

Like anything in life, the only constant is change. The best way to handle this is to have a solid change management process in place. This will help prevent problems. If a change is agreed upon verbally, this needs to be put into writing and shared with everyone who needs to know about it. 

By putting everything into writing, it avoids confusion, or the over-reliance on memory of what has been said. You can even use an online whiteboard tool to brainstorm ideas collectively before deciding what the final choices are.  

If you have a transparent and simple change management process that you can follow, and always do follow, this helps massively. Having a checklist with all of the necessary individuals required for approval listed, for example, can help in this process.

While this checklist type of process can slow things down and make change less dynamic, it avoids confusion or fund wastage. It can be very tempting to take shortcuts, but having specific procedures in place that are clear to everyone will help relying on hearsay about what was agreed. 

8. Look ahead

One of the most important things for project management is to scan ahead for any possible issues that could arise. Are the prices for important tools higher than you had originally thought or budgeted for? Costs can rise unexpectedly, and you must figure out how to budget for those increases. 

Is a particular task taking much longer than you had anticipated? Figuring out why can help you to fix this issue before it becomes a bigger problem, or else adapt your timetable to accommodate this change. 

By carefully tracking your progress, you can nip any issues in the bud before they bloom into big problems. 

9. Timetables and other tools

Each and every task in your project folder needs to have a start and completion data section. A relevant person should also be assigned to the task. You can avoid a domino effect of delays by making this folder accessible to everyone on the team so that people can adapt easily. 

There’s a myriad of tools you can use, such as spreadsheets, notifications, and gantt charts, that can help to keep your team on the same page, with a finger on the pulse of the project. 

You will always get the occasional team member or third party that tries to hide when things are going awry in the hopes that they can fix it on their own or to save face. By setting up checklists and internal controls, you can check that work is getting done at the pace that people are saying. You can then quickly rectify a simple oversight and avoid unnecessary expenses. 

10. Communication is everything

Communication at every step is essential for having a successful project. It might feel intimidating to tell your stakeholders, boss, or client that something is going wrong, but the earlier you address it, the easier it will be for everyone involved. 

Effective change management is another critical aspect of communication. When unexpected changes occur, it’s crucial to have a solid process in place. This process should involve documenting and sharing any agreed-upon changes with all relevant parties to avoid confusion or misunderstandings.

By implementing a clear change management checklist, you can ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to project modifications. Sometimes, you have to rip off the band-aid so that you can move on and work on finding solutions. 

To prepare, you will want to equip yourself with all of the important insights about what has happened, the impact this has had on the project, and what options you believe are available to solve the issue. You can even explain the different options available in detail, with prices and time costs laid out. By being totally honest about the aspects of the problem, you set your team up for success.

You should focus on the facts at hand and how to remedy the situation, rather than assigning blame, either on yourself or others. Explain in an objective way what the issues are and what the proposed solutions are. As soon as a solution is decided upon, you can implement it straight away, using your change management checklist. 

11. Measure your success

After every finished project, it’s important that you take stock of what went right, what went wrong, and what you would do differently going forward. You then share this information with your team to help them get a clear idea of what lies ahead and what’s expected of them. 

Sometimes, uncontrollable things happen that you can’t reasonably predict, but fairly often, your sphere of influence is larger than you might think. 

Look at your budget, first. Did you miss any key costs? Can you make a list of things to look out for in the future? If something was more expensive than you expected, keep note of what happened. Did you wait too long and the prices changed? Was the quote you received incomplete? 

Take a look at your time management. Did you complete previous projects on time? Was it tight or did you finish comfortably? Perhaps you can pad your current or future projects with a little more time to give your team the best shot at getting everything done on time. 

When you look at past communication, were there any obvious hiccups? Were there memos that didn’t make the rounds, people left out of the loops, undocumented changes? Consider how you could prevent those things from happening again and discuss it all with your team.

Also, you should take stock of what worked well and make sure to use that method again if it’s appropriate to do so. You also want to encourage and support your team!

12. Reflect

Managing project expectations requires highlighting all of the positives to your customer from the project, as well as cushioning the blow from any negatives. Making charts and reports to illustrate the successes will help massively to bring home any key messages of success. 

Finally, when you’re nearing the end of your project, it’s time to reflect on what went right. Which goals did you manage to achieve, what were your wins? Did you manage to use less than the allocated budget? Did you finish early?

Explaining why certain things didn’t work is also crucial for professionalism and to provide some kind of closure to your client. It’s much better to briefly address any hiccups that are relevant to them than to sweep them awkwardly under the rug. 

Final thoughts

Managing expectations is a big part of project management, alongside things like budgeting and outsourcing work to the right people. 

Completing a project is about more than just hitting those goals. How you get there and how everyone feels about the end result also matters. This is why you need to manage expectations all along the project journey. 

Author bio

Ryan Yee is an award-winning copywriter, with 20+ years of experience working alongside major US brands, emerging start-ups, and leading tech enterprises. His copy and creative have helped companies in the B2B marketing, education, and software sectors reach new customer bases and enjoy improved results.



Subscribe to our newsletter

Learn with Nulab to bring your best ideas to life