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When a Successful Project Isn't | Unmet Expectations

When a Successful Project Isn’t

By Steve P. Blais
August 20, 2022

Project managers are well versed in the various constraints that are used to determine project success: cost (budget), time (duration) and scope. And, certainly, the constraints can be used to objectively assess the success of a project: We did everything we intended to do within the timeframe and budget allocated for the job.

So, why would a project like that still be looked on as less than successful? One word: expectations. That is, expectations other than the objective measurements were not met. And, for most project managers, the expectations were not even disclosed.

So, if expectations are important enough to influence the evaluation of project success, why don’t we pay more attention to them? For one thing, they are not necessarily rational and may not have measurements associated with them. “Yes, the client expects it to happen in a certain way, but that is not reasonable, and besides, we are getting the final result that was asked for.” But instead of praise for a job well done, or even a simple, “thank you”, the client does not appear satisfied with the delivery.

One of the classic and fairly consistent manifestations of missed expectations is the typical business project. The customer specifies a business problem to be solved, and the project manager, business analyst, and team earnestly attack the problem as described and satisfy the customer’s stated need. However, at delivery time, the customer says something to the effect of, “Well, I know that is what I asked for, but it simply isn’t what I need.” Now, the project manager and team can walk away shaking their heads about the technology users who don’t know what they want and feel that they are justified in self-congratulations. However, they did not meet the customer’s expectations. You see, the customer views the team as the “solutions team”, and therefore, expects the problem to be solved even if the customer did not specify the correct problem. The customer expects that the team will determine the right problem, solve it, and deliver the solution. Not deliver what the customer asked for. So, it was a successful project according to the PMBOK® Guide, but expectations were not met. However, was it really a success?

Why do expectations have such a powerful hold over rationality and metrics?


There is a biological basis for this concern with expectations. Based on the work of Prof. Wolfgram Schultz at Cambridge University in England, we are able to understand the biological nature of human expectations.

We all have expectations.

These expectations are linked with the release of dopamine and the reward circuitry. Dopamine sits in the nucleus accumbens and fires off in anticipation of rewards. When the reward is received, the dopamine releases in response, and we get a pleasurable feeling.


The perception filter which exists in both members of the interaction filters out information that does not fit with our present situation. We hear things differently and say things differently the morning after a party in which alcohol is served, than we do on a midweek morning, after a good night’s sleep.

The perception filter also interprets the body language, tone of voice, and volume of voice to give meaning to the words. For example, if I lean forward on the desk toward you and with a very stress-laden face say, “You have got to listen to me!” You would interpret whatever I said after that as very important and requiring your immediate attention. On the other hand, if I were sitting next to you, and casually said, drink in hand, “You have got to listen to me”, you might expect that the words that follow would be either gossip or a joke. That filter assists us in getting ready to understand what is being said.

The filter, however, also can be wrong and can be manipulated. I can put more urgency in my voice and in my body language so that you will hear the same words with more urgency and react accordingly.

Unmet Expectations

The problem is that if the expectation is not met, the dopamine levels fall steadily, and this is a very unpleasant feeling. The movie that you just watched didn’t live up to expectations. It still may have been a good movie and those without such expectations thought it was great, but your expectations were not met, and you criticize it more. You do so because your dopamine levels fell. Those dopamine cells in the nucleus accumbens connect to many parts of the brain including the frontal cortex where the right levels of dopamine are critical for focusing thoughts and retaining ideas.

All this means that if you perceive something good is going to happen, or you perceive that something that is going to happen is going to be good, your dopamine levels go up. If your expectation of that good occurrence is not fulfilled, your dopamine levels go down, and you are unhappy.

And when the client is unhappy, everybody’s unhappy.

While it is not always easy to identify hidden or unvoiced expectations, there are some things that you can do to keep people from having the wrong expectations.

So, when we say, “meet expectations“, it doesn’t always mean we have to do what the client expects us to do, we simply have to recognize the expectation and deal with it accordingly.

Expecting Expectations

One truism in managing expectations is that you cannot manage expectations that you do not know about. So, the first line of defense is to take steps to determine the expectations.

For example, we know that the primary expectation is that the business problem is solved regardless of what is stated to be the problem. We have not achieved success if we give them what they asked for, but don’t solve their problem. Therefore, it seems obvious to ensure we are dealing with the real problem.

In most cases, you are greeted with a statement of need, for example, “We need a faster website.” Statements of need are not problems. Statements of need usually reflect requirements, constraints or solutions. Hearing a statement of need, I typically follow up by asking why they need whatever it is they need.

For example, “I need a faster website because people are leaving the website before they finish reading all our information.

So, if we reduce the verbiage that people have to read on the website, they’re less likely to leave before finishing up thus solving the problem even if we did not actually make the website physically faster.

In other words, ask more questions to determine the real problem even when the real problem is not specifically known by the customer.

Once you have a real problem to work with, determine what the customer sees once the problem is solved. What does the world look like? This is what Karl Wiegers calls the Vision: a description in as much detail as possible of a scenario that occurs in a problem-less domain. Usually such a description includes many expectations that the customer was not aware of.

Finally, by asking how they are going to know that their problem is solved usually exposes expectations that otherwise may have been held back.

Complaints Are Expectations

Everyone complains about the weather. Except that, actually, no one complains about the weather. It’s not the rain we are complaining about; it’s what we cannot do because of the rain. We are complaining that we cannot go on that picnic. Or that the romantic sunset wedding on the beach has been washed out.

Generally speaking, complaints are about unmet expectations rather than the object of the complaint.

There is hope, however. If we can remove the expectation, even by pointing out that it is an unrealistic expectation, the negative flow of the dopamine does not occur, or it occurs shortly, and then, is gone.

But since expectations usually include a heavy emotional involvement, simply telling the bride and groom that they can postpone the wedding until the next Sunday weekend evening may not fully stem the disappointment, especially if the wedding is scheduled during the rainy season, and it may be a couple months before a non-rainy Saturday.

Suggesting that the wedding can be done inside in a sandbox next to the kids’ pool under some lamps with palm trees Instagrammed into the pictures might also not quite do the trick. Reminding them that the wedding is the most important thing and not the setting – it might get them thinking back on track, but there still will be disappointment.

In other words, whenever you hear a complaint, go behind it. Logically dealing with the object of the complaint may move a discussion from emotionality to rationality, but it will not address the expectation behind the complaint.

Controlling and Meeting the Expectations

To some degree, we may be able to control the occurrence of expectations. For example, we can watch our campaign promises. Many times, we will tend to be extremely positive and optimistic in order to “raise morale” and get everyone thinking positively about the eventual successful outcome of the project. Even if we mitigate our comments with a dose of realism and rationality, the expectations may still linger in the subconscious and as unrealistic as they may be, will resurface as unmet expectations at the end of the project.

Remember that meeting unrealistic client expectations with superhuman efforts and excessive overtime does not usually get you the “Hero Badge”. What it gets you is expectations that you will do the same thing the next time and the belief that their original unrealistic expectations are not so unrealistic after all since you actually met them.

One other concern about expectations. Yes, it is possible to ignore expectations, and ignore any expectations that have not been voiced. After all, you cannot be held responsible for what you do not know, right? And, the disappointment will probably only be temporary considering that the project was successful in the end in meeting verbalized requirements. Do not consider that an unrealistic expectation voiced early in the project will go away in the harsh reality of project time frames and resource management. The opposite usually is true. The longer an expectation continues unaddressed, the harder it gets… That is to say, the more real that expectation becomes in the mind of the person who has those expectations.

Consider not enlightening a child of an expectation that they will get a horse as a birthday present. Come his or her birthday and all the gifts are presented on a table, you may be surprised to find the child ignoring the table of gifts completely and running outside looking for bales of hay convinced (despite all evidence to the contrary) that a horse will be there because nobody said they can’t keep a horse in a two-story apartment.

And Yet…

With all that consideration of ferreting out expectations and dealing with them, there will still be unstated expectations. It’s not that the customer was holding back. People many times do not know what they expect. As goes one of the more common phrases of the unsophisticated technology users of days gone by: “I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it.

And, looking at it from the other perspective, I’ve often heard technology users say, “How hard would it be to… [and now fill in the blank with some new and hitherto unmentioned feature]”.

Or, in other words, “I didn’t know you could do this. How hard would it be to …?” Then arises new expectations that the customer didn’t know he or she had.

So, catch all expectations as early as possible, and deal with them immediately. Dispel them with logic and reality, and hope that over time, you can expose all of the hidden and unvoiced expectations.

The final words come from English royalty as Sir Jagger and Sir Richards initially put it, “I can’t get no satisfaction”, but then modify it with, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need”.

Steve Blais, PMP, PMI-PBA, is an author, consultant, teacher, and coach who has over 55 years’ experience in Information Technologies working as a programmer, tester, project manager, business analyst, system analyst, general manager, and corporate executive. He has helped start up five different technical companies over the years.

Steve is the author of Business Analysis: Best Practices for Success (John Wiley, 2011) and co-author of Business Analysis for Practitioners: a Practice Guide (PMI, 2014) and a contributor to the Business Analyst Body of Knowledge, V3 (IIBA, 2015). His new book, The Digital Transformation of Business Analysis, published by IIBA Press, 2023.

Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.

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