Managing Project Expectations and The Courage to Push Back

By George Pitagorsky | Follow on Twitter!

An important, if not the most important, measure of success is meeting stakeholder expectations. Rational expectations are critical success factors.

Rational Expectations

Rational expectations have a fairly high probability of being met under expected performance conditions. The more rational the expectations, the more likely they will be satisfied.

For example, expecting to acquire and implement a new phone system within six to nine months is rational if there is a focused effort with appropriately skilled resources available and the organization's policies and procedures enable quick authorization of a budget and selection of contracting with a vendor.

On the other hand, if policies require multiple levels of budget approval across a complex organization, such as in a government agency, and/or procurement and contracting
is a bureaucratic nightmare, then expecting completion in six months is irrational.

Rational does not mean easy. Stretch goals are effective and lead to successes that go beyond satisfying stakeholders to exciting them. Though, stretch goals must be achievable to be rational.

It is all too common for pessimists and those with limited creativity to think some goals are irrational, when in fact they are not. Just look at the space program and the people who believed it was impossible to travel in space or at the civil rights movement in the U. S., and South Africa, the nonviolent Indian independence movement for example.

Thinking you can do the impossible is irrational. However, knowing what is impossible is not always so obvious.


Setting irrational expectations in projects is far more common than it needs be. It is often caused by inflexible targets set by senior stakeholders before there is ample opportunity to estimate completion times and costs.

Another cause is inaccurate estimating coupled with a lack of estimate refinement during the course of the work itself.

Both of these causes are closely tied to a fear on the part of estimators and performers. They are afraid to push back and present rational arguments to show why a target cannot be hit or with plan adjustments after initial expectations have been set.

Fear of pushing back and of admitting that original expectations need to change grow out of a mental block found in many organizations. They fail to accept the reality of uncertainty and the delusion of magical thinking.

How do you manage expectations?

Apply common sense and skillful project planning and control.

  1. 1. Accept Uncertainty

    Accept uncertainty and the need for iterative refinement. If expectations are to be rational, it is necessary that all stakeholders accept that there is always uncertainty about the way things will be in the future. Conditions and perceptions change. It is the PM’s responsibility to remind everyone.

    The degree of uncertainty varies. The time and effort required to do short duration, simple things that have been done many times before in relatively stable environments are more certain than the time and effort required to do new things with new people in volatile environments.

    With the acceptance of uncertainty, there is the logical conclusion that, particularly for long term projects, estimates must be reviewed and refined as the work is being performed. For each refinement, there is a need for justification.

  2. 2. Avoid Magical Thinking

    Just wanting something to be done by a certain time within a certain budget will not make it happen; no matter how critical it is.

    Senior executives and clients know this, as do most people. However, sometimes their expectations do not reflect their knowledge.

    It is the project manager's responsibility to remind them and to base expectations on rational plans, unless, of course, there are magicians involved.

  3. 3. Manage Risk
    With the acceptance of uncertainty comes the realization that risk must be managed. What could happen to either promote or hinder success? What is the probability of occurrence and impact? What can be done to avoid, remediate or promote a risk event?
  4. 4. Communicate
    Explicitly define scope and quality expectations can be mutually understood or not.

When a stakeholder has unstated expectations, it is likely that the other stakeholders will not know what is expected and probably won't deliver a satisfying result. For example, if I expect a dark blue widget because I think everyone knows that widgets should be dark blue, I am more likely to be disappointed than if I had explicitly stated my preference.

In projects state even the most obvious requirements explicitly.

Be particularly careful about quality. Quality can be subjective. What is wonderful to one person may be terrible to another. Make quality criteria as objective and measurable as possible to avoid disappointment. Break quality down into specific attributes and define each. Quality may translate into fast and cheap. How fast is fast? How cheap is cheap?


Rooting out irrational expectations and the disappointment they cause requires courage. Project managers, task managers and performers need to push back. They need to say what they think and why they think it.

Doing this in the face of a boss who is pushing hard for an irrational outcome or, worse, who has made a commitment to meet irrational expectations, is not easy. Fear and lack of confidence arise.

Use the skills and principles of PM to build a solid case for your position. Present it and be ready for the response. Know when to keep pushing and when to surrender.

If your management is rational, they will appreciate your candor and skill and, possibly, change their expectations.

If not, be ready to go on a forced march to failure or to politely opt out.

If you opt in to the forced march and miss the target, have the courage to promote a candid retrospective to identify the causes and improve the process for the next time.

Questions or comments? Feel free to share them below!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: George Pitagorsky, PMP, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management and PM BasicsTM. He teaches meditation and is on the Board of Directors of the NY Insight Meditation Center.

Online 8/1/2016
George Pitagorsky
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