As a project manager, it’s important to set clear expectations with your stakeholders. Without doing this, it’s easy for people’s minds to wander and for them to imagine the ideal outcomes. In turn, different stakeholders will imagine what life will be like after your project is delivered. However, each stakeholder will then expect something different. This will be almost impossible to deliver against and soon, you’ll be disappointed and

What do we mean by expectations?

People naturally imagine a number of future scenarios based on their knowledge. This knowledge is formed from a range of sources, such as experience or research as well as what they’ve seen, heard or felt.

The scenarios that people imagine could be when everything goes right or when things go wrong. In time, the brain will filter down these scenarios into the most likely opportunity. This becomes their expectation.

Now, when expectations come true, people feel good. They have a buzz of energy as what they expected happened. However, when they’re not true, the person is left unsatisfied, upset or even angry.

As a project manager, you’d naturally want to meet your stakeholder’s expectations. However, the expectation are going to be different from person to person. So, the challenge you have is to first align and set clear expectations and then deliver against them.

What expectations do you need to be clear on

There are many different aspects of your project that you’ll want to be clear on. The most important expectations to be clear on are:

  • Benefits – the ultimate reason that you’re doing the project
  • Costs – the investments needed to realise – these include project costs, capital costs and ongoing costs
  • Timelines – when will your project be delivering. Also, when will benefits be realised.
  • Scope – or more specifically what’s not in scope.

The final point there, Scope, is important as it can actually affect all of the other expectations. Imagine, if a stakeholder expectation was that you would deliver your change to every country in the world vs only part of one country. This would drive their complete vision of the future. So it’s an expectation that you want to be clear on early on.

How should you find out current expectations

Your stakeholders have got their expectations set already. The first step to setting clear expectations is to understand what’s in your stakeholders’ minds already.

This doesn’t need to be rocket science. Just go and meet with your stakeholders (you are planning on doing that, right?). Then ask what their expectations are on those 4 key areas: benefits, costs, timelines and scope.

How should you set clear expectations

So, you’ve met your stakeholders and understood their expectations. Great…… But, they don’t match reality. Or they don’t match other stakeholders’ expectations.

Now, you’ve got some classic project management work to do now. (By the way, that should be one of your expectations for the project manager role!).

You need to understand and clarify the situation. In turn, you’ll need to set clear expectations. Here are 3 tips to help you set clear expectations:

  1. Be direct in addressing or adjusting expectations – don’t shy away from it. Instead – call it out as an important discussion point.
  2. Show your stakeholders what the realistic expectation should be and why.
  3. Wrap up by stating the expectation that you want people to keep in mind. Try using phrases like: “just to be clear on expectations…”. Or “I know that your expectation was… but actually, it should be…”. Try “the reasons behind [the expectation] is…” or “my current forecast or prediction is…”

A quick side note on the final phrase there. The term “my” is important. To be a successful project manager, you must take ownership of your plans.

The bottom line – set clear expectations from the start

Setting clear expectations is important for your project to be perceived as successful. If you miss your stakeholder’s expectations, your project could be branded as a failure. Even if you delivered positive benefits!

Make sure you understand the expectations on your project and reset accordingly. Above all, just make sure that you don’t over promise and under deliver.

You may also enjoy reading about Defining a Stakeholder Management Strategy.

Also, your project sponsor is one of your most important stakeholders – it’s critical that you understand their expectations. Read more about Project Sponsors.

project management expert Oliver BanksAbout the Author

Oliver Banks is an expert at delivering retail change projects and programmes. He’s led and managed many different types of retail projects, working with a variety of stakeholders. Oliver loves the opportunity to improve and innovate. Along the way, he’s had to understand many differing stakeholder engagements and, when necessary, reset those expectations.


project management expert Oliver Banks

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