Avoid the Expectations Gap!

By Michael Wilkinson, CMF
Managing Director, Leadership Strategies, Inc.

The expectations gap is a painful experience that most consultants have encountered at some point in their career. You know how it works. The project starts out a little slow at first. But then, you hit the point on the growth curve where the project accelerates and you are creating work products and producing deliverables at a steady pace. Then, the deliverable production slows down as you approach project completion with finishing touches on those final deliverables.

Suddenly, and without any prior warning, your client asks, “So, when are you going to get to…?” or “Your team is going to produce…isn’t it?” But your team never had the intention of “getting to…” or “producing…” You’re thinking, Surely you couldn’t have expected us to be able to do all that, given your budget and time constraints. Any reasonable person would see that what you are expecting is simply unreasonable.

Welcome to the expectations gap: that place in time when the realization hits you that what you are creating (or have created) does not match your client’s expectation. It’s a dark, cold and lonely place!


What If…

But what if the client’s expectation was below the reality line on the graph? What if reality exceeded the client’s expectation line? What a difference, yes? You now are transformed from “egg on your face sluggo” to “superman the hero.” And note the difference: reality hasn’t changed. You still produce the same deliverable. But because the client’s expectation is different, the client’s view of you is different!

So what are strategies for avoiding the expectations gap?  How do you stay on the “hero” side of that gap? Here are a few strategies from our course, The Facilitative Consultant.

1. Define the client’s expectations up front.

  • During the “Define the Need” stage, use questioning techniques that focus on understanding the problem, the implications if the problem is not addressed and the benefits of solving the problem.
  • Be sure to get your clients definition of success, both short-term and long-term.

2. Establish performance objectives that closely match the client’s expectations.

  • We recommend establishing performance objectives in three areas: project objectives related to timeframe and budget, business objectives related to how the project impacts business results, and satisfaction objectives to ensure full satisfaction of those impacted.
  • Ask the confirmation question: “If we achieve these outcomes, and only these outcomes, will the project be a success and meet your expectations?”
  • Get sign-off from the client that the performance objectives will meet expectations.

3. Fully define your project scope.

  • We recommend three vehicles for fully defining the scope: the deliverables list, the task list and the business area diagram.
  • Ask the confirmation question: “If we execute these tasks and only these tasks, working in these areas and only these areas, and produce these deliverables and only these deliverables, will we have focused on all the things important to achieve success?”
  • Get sign-off from the client that the scope definition will meet expectations.

4. Hold regular update meetings with a focus on performance against expectations.

  • Report against the performance objectives and scope definition to keep the expectations ever present in the mind of the client.

5. Document changes to scope and objectives.

  • Implement a formal change control process to ensure that changes in scope or performance outcomes are understood and agreed to.

6. Provide an engagement close letter at project completion.

  • The engagement close letter documents performance against scope and performance objectives.

You can learn more consulting tips in our class, The Facilitative Consultant.

Michael Wilkinson is the Managing Director of Leadership Strategies – The Facilitation Company and author of The Facilitative Consultant training course.Prior to Leadership Strategies, he spent eight years with Ernst & Young’s Management Consulting Group.  He recently published The Secrets of Facilitation, and is a much sought after trainer, facilitator and speaker.