Setting and Managing Expectations

In 1994 I managed a team that delivered a project that any outsider or any project team member would have considered a success. The product represented a great leap forward for the company. It included far more features than the product that was being replaced, was built using new state-of-the-art technologies with which the company had no prior experience, and included the development of three data centers that went on to provide 99.99999% uptime over the next six years.

However, the project was almost considered a failure. The project was to be delivered into multiple call centers with more than 300 nurses on the phones. It was to replace a quirky but familiar system that the company was rapidly outgrowing. The nurses’ expectations of what the new system would deliver were sky high. In monthly sprint reviews with the nurses, I was routinely shocked by what they’d come to expect, some of which wasn’t even technically feasible. With about three months left on the year-long project, I realized my focus had to change. From then on, I spent almost all of my time on expectations management.

I met with nurses in each of the call centers and described exactly what would and would not be in the delivered system. I toned down their expectations about the system’s impact on world peace, global warming, and personal weight loss. Without this effort, the product would have been perceived as a failure. Since that project, I have been acutely aware of the importance of expectations management to the overall success of any project. Setting and managing expectations is perhaps even more important at the start of a major shift such as adopting an agile project management approach like Scrum. In initiating a transition to Scrum, I find it helpful to set and manage expectations about four things:

  • How quickly teams will improve
  • How long it will take to gain additional predictability from the team’s new way of working
  • How there will almost always come a time when turning back looks easier than sticking with it
  • The level of involvement in the transition that will be necessary from various stakeholders and organization leaders

By properly setting expectations you can avoid the problem of having an otherwise successful transition or project sunk by unrealistic expectations. More details about setting and managing expectations can be found in Chapter 5 of Succeeding with Agile.

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Mike Cohn

About the Author

Mike Cohn specializes in helping companies adopt and improve their use of agile processes and techniques to build extremely high-performance teams. He is the author of User Stories Applied for Agile Software Development, Agile Estimating and Planning, and Succeeding with Agile as well as the Better User Stories video course. Mike is a founding member of the Agile Alliance and Scrum Alliance and can be reached at If you want to succeed with agile, you can also have Mike email you a short tip each week.

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