Expectation Management

by Colin Kennedy and Paul Colahan - Sep 11, 2014

The majority of development projects fail to meet expectations. We’ve covered this issue on our blog, and recently came across others discussing the very same issue.


Both parties work together to manage expectations.

According to a survey conducted by Geneca 75% of stakeholders expressed a lack of confidence in a development project’s results. This “lack of confidence” speaks to (amongst other things) the subjective nature of a complex project. And when subjectivity enters the equation, it becomes much harder to accurately assess the success of a development project. The discussion ends up shifting away from the software itself and toward Expectation Management.

There are many pitfalls when it comes to managing expectations, and we’ve highlighted some of the more common causes of mismanaged expectations…

Service Provider’s Responsibilities:

Failure to properly manage the expectations of a development project can fall on the service provider. This does not necessarily mean that the code itself is a problem. In our experience, when a development shop fails to manage expectations it has more to do with one the following:

  • The contractual terms surrounding the project aren’t met: This could mean missed deadlines, failure to respond in a timely manner, lack of adherence to the technical requirements, etc.

  • There’s a lack of client-facing Project Management: If the provider doesn’t designate a technical lead responsible for working continuously with the client, the project will feel “out of sync.” There needs to be someone to cultivate the shared vision between the provider and the client.

  • There is a lack of coordination within the development team itself: When the team doesn’t communicate well, it tends to misunderstand the project’s objectives. This can lead to a situation where all of the required features exist, but result in an underwhelming user experience.

Client’s Responsibilities:

Plenty is expected of the service provider when it comes to properly managing project expectations, but there are times when a client’s missteps are more responsible for the expectations disconnect:

  • The client is unwilling to engage in a conversation about the project’s constraints: Every project has its constraints…if a client is unwilling to engage in “give-and-take” conversations, they ignore reality and endanger the project.

  • The personnel responsible for approving the project aren’t intimately involved with the ongoing review of the project’s progress: So much happens over the course a custom development project – requirements are captured, requirements change, technology is vetted (and sometimes discarded), etc. Clients who commission a project and give it little thought until it’s time to assess the final result often come away disappointed.

Shared Responsibilities:

It’s important for clients to support their service providers by giving them the vision, feedback, and background information they need to build great software. There’s a natural back-and-forth that needs to exist, and the best outcomes occur when both sides see one another as a partner. But even when the parties come to the table with the best intentions and exhibit a commitment to the project’s success, there are pitfalls that can derail the project. They include:

  • When business objectives aren't clearly defined: Even if they are well defined, business objectives also need to be aligned with the process and methodology chosen for the project.

  • If there is no shared definition of “Done”: If the two parties don’t explicitly state what constitutes a finished product, at minimum they’ll need to detail the framework they’ll use to assess a project’s completion.

  • The requirements gathering process is haphazard/incomplete: Agreeing to what should/shouldn’t be included in a project is crucial to a successful outcome. When this step is compromised, the disparity between what gets built and what was envisioned will be significant.

In many ways, Expectation Management boils down to communication and commitment. When both parties are prepared to engage in a thoughtful, ongoing dialogue on every aspect of a development project, they put themselves in a position to meet expectations. It sounds simple, but we hope that the reasons detailed above (and the data provided by Geneca) puts into perspective the difficult nature of the task at hand.