10 Ways to Establish Realistic Expectations as a Project Manager

Komal Sharma

Last Updated: January 3, 2024
no preview

Has it ever happened to you that after working hard on a project, all you get at the end is disappointment from the client? 

This can be daunting, especially when the result is high quality on time, and within budget. Such a situation may seem unexpected if a project has been running smoothly from the start, without the client having complained about anything. So, what could cause a customer to be unhappy with the result? Inappropriate and unrealistic expectations can be the cause.

Such failures in a project as well as relationships with your client can arise in case of inflated expectations that weren’t communicated and agreed upon from the very beginning or a mismatch in initial expectations.

A man wearing glasses rests his head on a table, appearing tired or deep in thought.

It is important to set expectations for the project from its onset to determine its success. It cuts everything to the quick and leaves no room for guesswork on either side. It is not as easy to set expectations correctly and manage them throughout the process. From beginning to end, we show you every detail about successfully managing project expectations.

A fundamental component of project management is setting up realistic expectations. It entails setting specific objectives, developing feasible deadlines, efficient utilisation of resources, interacting with stakeholders, and risk management. The setting of realistic expectations by project managers is instrumental in ensuring that projects take the minimal time possible, use the least possible money, and satisfy all parties involved. This article looks at the issues of setting realistic expectations for project managers and provides 10 approaches to assist them.

The Power of Expectation: Your Key to Success

Expectations grow out of assumptions or prior experiences. Human beings tend to assume and expect everything in life ranging from their favourite restaurant to the local coffee shop, online stores, and so much more. Project management follows the same logic.

With every project, you have some expectations, your client also has some expectations when they allow you to handle their project. The slightest discrepancy between these expectations can result in:

  • Increased confusion and misunderstanding
  • A decrease in mutual trust
  • Lost hours and decreased team output.

This will only doom the performance of the project and can be harmful to it. As such, it is necessary to establish project management expectations right from the beginning.

If you know what your customer wants, and if the customer knows what you have promised, there will be no possibility of disappointment or shocking surprise. Simply setting expectations correctly brings transparency to the process and saves you from hassles and headaches. Now let’s take a quick look at some proven methods for managing project expectations as a project manager 

Talk To Your Clients Before Project Planning

Do you know what annoys you the most when working on projects?

A continuous demand for changes, This happens when you don’t discuss customer expectations thoroughly before diving into the planning phase. As a result, there is a back-and-forth of emails regarding project changes, which, in turn, leads to frustration. It also questions your credibility and influences your relationship with customers. It is therefore crucial to discuss the expected results and then move on to the planning phase.

A diverse group of individuals sitting around a table, engrossed in their work on laptops.

If everything goes according to plan, this will help you avoid last-minute adjustments and help you meet or surpass customer expectations. Talk to your clients right away if you believe they have unreasonable expectations for you and your team in terms of project management. Strive for common ground and take the initiative to save time and money. 

You must be open and honest during conversations in order to accomplish this, as well as effectively convey the skills, resources, and outcomes that your team is capable of achieving. It will be simpler to establish a win-win scenario the more open and honest you are. 

Define The Scope Of The Project

As a project manager, the first step in the project planning process is defining its scope. To do this effectively, you need to understand the project:

Deliverables: What are the expected products and results?

Costs: Is there an established budget?

Deadline: How much time do you have to complete the project?

Available Resources: What physical, human, and financial resources do you have at your disposal?

Interest groups: Who is involved in the project? Who are the influencers, decision-makers, and recipients

Build The Right Team

How a project can make or break a team. Your project performance can also be boosted by having the right people on your team. On the other hand, an incompetent or inexperienced team may result in project failure.

An ideal team manages  the client’s expectations and makes the customer feel that the outcome will be good. Always select your project team members with utmost caution and assign duties to them.

Review the team members’ history to know their strengths, and weaknesses, and to identify those suitable for your project and have been sincere and diligent on other tasks. In this regard, it will be easier for you to build a team.

Assign each team member a small portion of the project to work on. If a task calls for more than one person, only give it to people who can work well with others. Examine their interpersonal skills and teamwork tendencies before assigning them the assignment.

Here are some tips that might help you build the right team for your project:

  • Choose people who get along well with each other 
  • Be sure of the strengths and weaknesses of everyone on your team. 
  • Explain job responsibilities in detail during the first team meeting. 
  • Communicate goals and expectations from the start.

Communicate Regularly

You don’t want assumptions and expectations to create unwanted chaos during the project execution phase, do you? To avoid this, it is essential to communicate often with your clients as well as your project team. 

Communication begins at the planning stage and must continue at all stages until the final delivery of the project. Hold regular one-on-one meetings with your clients after reaching a milestone. If it’s not possible to meet with your client often, use emails or phone calls to update them on progress. Ask as many questions as you want, and even encourage the client to make suggestions on the tasks completed. 

Be sure to keep a record of every discussion with your client. The idea is to write a “meeting report” after each discussion and share it with your client and project team. Ultimately, if your client is asking questions, you need to have logical reasons for all the important decisions you made while working on the project. 

Two women engaged in conversation while seated on a couch.

The project team also needs to communicate efficiently. Ensure you communicate with your team whenever there is a new development or change in the scheme of things.

Hold team meetings regularly or, if meetings keep wasting time, emails are the best option. A project is more likely to be successful if everyone on the project knows what they are supposed to do to help the project to be successful.

A project management tool like Trello, Smartsheet etc, is more appropriate if it is a big project and many stakeholders are involved. It makes project management and teamwork very simple. A dashboard where you can track and prioritise projects, share files, and initiate some discussions with your team. 

Don’t Overpromise

Be realistic and only promise what your team is capable of delivering. The team will be the one to pay for your over-promise and get carried away in achieving their unrealistic goals.

Ensure that you only set goals that you believe your team can accomplish. Make sure that the agreed project objectives are met within a set time frame and at the highest standards.

It is always good to seek views from your project group and consider each member’s opinion before finalising a deadline. Taking into account suggestions from the team will do a lion’s share of the work, so it is wise to consider it before setting the deadline.

There is no point in making false promises to your customers. Customers will question your credibility if promises are not kept. Therefore, only promise what you can deliver.

Things Can Sometimes Go Wrong, Be Honest About Them

Projects are subject to risk, and the fact is there’s nothing you can do about it. There will be times when things go haywire and the situation seems out of control. There will be days when a little delay on your part can lead to blunders.

Does this mean you have to suffer in silence and leave your customers and management in the dark? Mistakes are inevitable. It’s best to accept them, pass them on to the right stakeholders, find a way to fix them and move forward. 

There’s nothing wrong with being honest about your mistakes. This will only build stakeholder trust in you. They may be frustrated at first, but they will give you time to rectify the situation and continue with the project. 

Mistakes indeed slow down a project, but a bigger mistake will be not communicating the situation to your client or seniors. Sometimes being honest and transparent opens other doors for you that you didn’t even know existed. 

For example, if you communicate the problem to your immediate manager, he or she may offer a quick and practical solution that you might not have thought of. Being honest from the start helps prevent mistakes from escalating further. 

Prepare For Conflict

It is also possible that the members of your project team work on other projects. Therefore, they will have to plan their time against the urgency of the tasks and the project needs.

This is where conflicts arise. Other project managers will wish that a member spent more time on his/her project. On the other hand, you will wish he/she spent more time on your project. Such a conflict situation may lead to a situation where project deadlines are threatened.

Just because you’re concerned about deadlines doesn’t mean you should bombard your team members with a workload. This would again be unhealthy, both for your team and for the project. 

What you need to do is understand the scenario. Discuss project priorities and deadlines with other project managers. Next, ask your team how much time they can dedicate to your project. Understand their workflow and be aware of the distractions they face due to other projects.

Keep all of these in mind and come up with a pragmatic solution. Take a systematic approach. Develop a strategy that allows your team to transition between projects seamlessly without impacting performance. 

Set Milestones Precisely 

It is imperative to set the right milestones when you start working on a project. They make it possible to clarify the progress of the project and maintain transparency between the two parties. Your clients can visualise how long each step will take and the path your project will take, making it easier for them to make suggestions before work even begins. 

Milestones also act as a driving force for project members. Your team members won’t feel overwhelmed when they see the entire project broken down into easily achievable steps. Reaching a milestone makes your team confident in its abilities and keeps project development on track. 

A man scaling a clock tower, determinedly climbing upwards, against a backdrop of a clear blue sky.

It’s much easier to meet customer expectations when your project, no matter its size, is broken down into manageable steps. 

Here are some tips that can help you set milestones: 

  • Identify the critical tasks on which the success of the project depends and set them as milestones. Set an appropriate deadline for each task. 
  • Don’t call every task a milestone. 
  • Plan your milestones. Don’t place them too close together, as this will make the work tedious for your team. 

To set milestones and track their progress,

try out a good project management software with functions like shared calendar and charts. They help you to define milestones, and manage, and track them in a single dashboard. It becomes easy to track progress on milestones and keep tabs on which person is working on which milestone, all at the same place.

Create A Practical Calendar

If you have an accurate time frame for managing project expectations, then it is a snap. Consider the creation of a functional calendar that moves at a slow pace with some flexibility to make emergency changes.

For instance, if a project is due in five weeks, then schedule it for four weeks. Give your team a week’s headroom so they can make final changes, polish the project, and stay relaxed as the deadline approaches. It is also possible that your team will complete the project well before the deadline, i.e. within four weeks. 

If this happens, nothing like it. If this is not the case, there will be enough time for them to make the final touches without being rushed.

Guide Your Team

It is not fair to expect your project team to meet the project management expectations when you do not guide them and only tell them that their efforts should be enough to ensure quality performance of the project.

Once the stakeholders and project expectations are set and deadlines decided, share this with your team. Do not hurry to launch the project. Conduct a meeting with the team and explain in detail all aspects of the project.

A man and woman in business attire engaged in a conversation, possibly discussing work-related matters.

Be honest and transparent about the type of performance you expect from your team. Explain the communication requirements, the type of project risks, and the quality standards you want to achieve. 

Tell your team how they should work, collaborate, and communicate on the project. For example, if you want a team member to send weekly reports to the client, make this clear during the meeting. 

Assign tasks and subtasks to each team member, initiate discussions to keep things transparent, and provide regular feedback on the team’s performance. 

With Mentoria Manage Realistic Project Expectations 

Expectations are an inevitable part of moving forward and delivering a project. Having certain expectations for a project is a good practice. This keeps you motivated and focused throughout the project.

The problem arises when expectations are not well managed or there is a significant mismatch between your expectations and those of your customers. This is when the downfall begins, leading to dissatisfaction among stakeholders, demotivation of teams, and damage to your credibility. 

Before you start working on a project, talk to your clients. Try to make everything transparent. Show them what your team can do and what is beyond your team’s capabilities. You should not over-promise and under-deliver. Make concrete commitments that you are confident your team can keep. Define your project expectations today to avoid confusion and misunderstandings in the future.

Discover your strengths and areas for growth with Mentoria’s career guidance. Whether you’re looking to excel in your current role, explore a new one in your industry, or switch to a completely different field, our counsellors will create a personalised action plan for you. With 3 streams, 850+ courses, and 12,000+ careers, we help you find your perfect fit. Call us to speak with career mentors and kick-start your journey toward a happy and successful future.