I did not expect this! Five Tips for Mastering Expectation Alignment

September 9, 2021 by No Comments

Some time ago, I was the executive sponsor responsible for developing a facilities strategy for a new line of business. I authorized one of my project managers to develop the strategy that we would jointly present to our management. We both had visions of what we expected in strategy, but I didn’t make sure our views fit. My project manager was very competent at his job; however, mind reading was not one of his skills. The day before presenting the strategy, I took a tour with her. It was nothing like I imagined, and I knew that the strategy in its current state would not be well received by our management. We went through a fire drill to bring the strategy to a state where I thought it would be better received. We survived the review with our management, but it didn’t go as well as it could have gone, and we went through a lot of pain (including a sleepless night) to rework the strategy.

I don’t blame the project manager one bit for the misstep. It was totally up to me that the strategy wasn’t what I was thinking because I didn’t make sure our expectations were aligned from the start. I also didn’t put checkpoints along the way to make sure we stayed aligned. It cost us not only in additional work but in relationship of trust. I blew it.

Unfortunately, my story is just one of many I’ve seen and experienced over the years where expectations were misaligned. Due to my experiences, I have become crazy about setting and aligning expectations, so much so that when I get misaligned it is like being hit in the stomach. It is up to the leader to ensure a clear alignment of expectations by empowering someone to do something. Those leaders who just hope someone will ask the right questions about the what, who, and when to do something are only asking for frustration and rework. This is a “measure twice cut once” application; A little extra work up front to ensure alignment can save a lot of pain downstream.

Need help to better define and stay aligned with expectations? Consider the following five tips:

  1. Be clear about the what, who and when – Expectation alignment begins with an intentional understanding of what needs to be done, who should do it, and when it should be done. Be specific, including specific dates and named owners. Also take the time to understand the expectations of others and drive toward a common vision.
  2. Wireframe the deliverable – For a more complex deliverable, it may be worth defining what the deliverable should look like, be it a table of contents, an image, or some other medium that brings clarity to the ‘fact’ appearance.
  3. Take regular checkpoints – Develop an agreed follow-up rhythm to ensure deliverables progress is on track and that any deviations can be detected early. See my article on Fostering a Culture of Follow-up for more information.
  4. Describe clear actions if there is a deviation from the deliverable – It is certainly possible that there is a deviation from the deliverable, be it the content, the date or some other factor. Make sure there is clear agreement between stakeholders on how changes will be communicated, what decisions the end product owner can make, and what the stakeholder agreement requires.
  5. Articulate the consequences of misaligned expectations – When expectations get out of line, be clear on both the business impact and how stakeholders are affected. For example, misaligned expectations can mean a date slippage that could affect subsequent activities. Being clear about the consequence helps keep everyone aligned on the importance of producing a desired result on time.

As leaders, it is your job to take the initiative to clearly align delivery expectations. In this “measure twice cut once” approach, well-defined expectations alignment means less execution friction. Your team needs it.

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