Project expectations versus reality

17 May

Let’s be clear – it doesn’t matter what the facts are if the customer’s expectations are not met.

It doesn’t get any simpler, but statistics and anecdotal accounts show that an alarmingly large number of projects fail to meet customer expectations. Regardless of the industry segment, project context, or methods used to manage the work, disconnects between what the customer expects and reality cause more project angst and frustration than anything else. Why is this?

There are three primary reasons why meeting customer expectations fall short:

  1. The true expectations are unknown
  2. The expectations are unrealistic
  3. The competency of the delivery team.


Unknown expectations

Understanding the customer’s requirements is at the top of any list of project start-up tasks. And in today’s modern project management environments, it would be rare not to see those asks articulated through project charters and plans or Scrum artefacts like the feature backlog. But technical requirements are only part of the picture.

Customers always have unspoken expectations. Sometimes information is intentionally withheld in cases where the customer feels that early disclosure of their true desires would negatively impact performance; it rarely does. More frequently, it is because they haven’t given it much thought, and no one has bothered to ask. Since they will not tell you on their own, it is up to the project team to tease these expectations out.


Unrealistic expectations

Even if the team understands perfectly what the customer expects, it doesn’t mean those expectations are achievable. Sponsors rarely know all details that underpin their desires, even after the project has been delivered. And they never know all the ways their expectations can be undermined.

If in your career, you have not experienced a customer (internal or external) who expects something should cost less or be delivered sooner, despite well-established evidence to the contrary, you are leading a charmed life. You may also be sensitive to the fact that sometimes challenging unrealistic expectations can be a career-killer.

But when a project starts out with unrealistic expectations, unless and until corrective action is taken to disabuse the customer of their less than achievable version of reality, the initiative will suffer until it is either cancelled or its funding dries up. Better to have strongly signaled the potential issues upfront than to be faced with the question “why didn’t you say something?” when things don’t work out. Just be certain in your assessment, as claims of impossibility not supported by fact will, in the most benign reaction, be ignored.


Delivery team competency

No one likes to admit it, but sometimes projects fail to meet customer expectations because the team charged with meeting those expectations just isn’t up to the task. Whether it’s a lack of technical expertise or inadequate social skills, not every team has what it takes to satisfy the customer.

This situation can be caused by a number of well-intentioned but misguided decisions. Teams that are assembled based purely on availability are probably the most common. Another cause of team incompetency is when the wrong people are assigned because the skills needed to meet a customer’s expectations are not fully understood. Whatever the reason, it makes good sense to validate your team has the competence to deliver what’s expected before work begins.



Expectations are always a critical component of any initiative. While a strong case can be made that it should be the customer’s responsibility to ensure their expectations are known, in the end, it seldom is. So the responsibility for identifying and understanding expectations falls to every team member. Only then will expectations have a chance of matching reality.



Posted by Cris Casey.

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