Managing to Avoid Detailed Expectations

One of the keys to project and program success is managing stakeholder expectations. Unrealistic expectations are unlikely to be fulfilled and when the project or project manager fails to live up to the unrealistic expectations they are seen to fail.

One area project managers regularly do themselves and their projects a major disservice is in preparing time and cost estimates. It is simply impossible to accurately predict the future (if we could casinos would go bankrupt!). However, far too many project managers seem willing to create schedules that state implicitly that a task will complete at 3:30pm on a Tuesday afternoon in 4 months time or the total cost of their project will be $10,986, 547.55. These pseudo accurate estimates based on detailed calculations are no more accurate then estimates made in more general terms and covered with an appropriate range indicator.

$10,986, 547.55 is no more valid than $11million +10% -5%. Achieving a detailed estimate for a $10 million plus project to within -5% to +10% would indicate a very careful estimating process in a stable, well understood environment. What is different is the precisely inaccurate number calculated to the nearest cent will raise the expectations of a range of stakeholders as to degree of accuracy possible leading to ‘perceived failure’ when the stakeholder’s unrealistic expectations are not realised.

Similar problems arise if a project is scheduled in hours and the work extends for more than a few days. Certainly scheduling on an hour by hour basis for a high intensity project that has a total duration of one or two weeks (or less) is sensible and desirable. A typical example would be a maintenance shutdown at a major facility. The cost of every hours production lost can be many thousands of dollars.

However, taking the same approach to a project running over several months simply produces a mass of inaccurate data once you get beyond the first few days but the stakeholder’s expectations as to the degree of accuracy possible from scheduling will have been raised to unrealistic levels. Again, when the project fails to achieve this degree of control over the future implied by the excessively detailed schedule, it will be seen to have failed.

We have just posted two White Papers focused on a practical approach to estimating activity durations and costs, they can be downloaded from:

Practical estimating is only one aspect of managing stakeholder expectations. Your stakeholders may already have unrealistic expectations of what is possible from previous projects that ‘failed’ (there was nothing wrong with the detailed estimating processes just all of the inept project managers…). Dealing with this issue requires effective management of your senior stakeholders by ‘managing upwards’. This is the topic of my next book due for publication next year.

2 responses to “Managing to Avoid Detailed Expectations

  1. Good article, I appreciate the direct words of detail versus accuracy and feasibility.
    Always remember, the number one cause of resentment (dissatisfaction) is unfulfilled expectations. Don’t “sell” something you cannot work.
    An oldtime construction manager once told me (he was the “management by intimidation” school) that there were two groups in our business he couldn’t stand – Business Development, they always sold what couldn’t be done, and Start-Up, you could never control them.
    An old story from way back when, but thought somebody would appreciate it. You guys keep up the Good Work!!

  2. My advice to everyone in controls space is to do a bit less than you think you may need at first (your comment was KISS) – you can always add more detail or process if they are really needed, but the second law of bureaucracy is that one a report has been produced more than twice it can never be removed from a system 🙂 .

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