Setting Expectations Early & Often
Agreeing on simple things (for example, where and when to meet) can be anything but simple. There can be miscommunications, incomplete communications, desires can change along the way, or people can learn things that change their availability or ability to get together. How do you make sure that you stay on the same page, even as you (and the things around you) change?
The remedy is effective expectation setting.
If you search YouTube for videos on expectation setting, though, you’ll get lots of results that talk about one-way communication around making sure someone (often someone with less organizational power) knows what you want from them. Lots of these videos are great, but they are limited to helping you build your skills around clear, concise, meaningful, tangible communication. And sometimes, expectation setting is indeed one-way, like for example when a company explains its return policy before you purchase something, or lets you know that there’s a real person behind its chat rather than a bot.
More often, expectation setting requires dialogue, and can’t just be unilaterally set by one party. When two parties (or a group of people) establish or update their shared understanding of a problem, situation, or scenario, then confirm that shared understanding, expectations are set. But that doesn’t mean you’re done.
Expectations erode over time. People learn, situations change, and relationships change. Especially in a work context, we might be setting expectations with a role, and people can flow in and out of roles. It’s not uncommon that we won’t have all the information or context we need going into a discussion, or that the information has become stale since the last time the parties reviewed it. Sometimes, new people are at the table, and we can’t make assumptions about how much understanding they have (or whether they’ve been introduced to the problem at hand at all).
For example, it’s common to scope a services engagement with the decision maker and project champion (who signs the contract), but be handed off to more operational contacts for the day-to-day work. Sometimes these operations people will not have had the opportunity to be briefed by the decision maker, who may or may not have prioritized getting their buy-in. You’ll have to deal with this challenge during the first opportunity you get to engage in expectation setting with this group of people.
The dialogue around expectations is ongoing, and you can tell it’s happening when you hear things like:
- “What we think we’re going to do next is [this]. Has anything changed since the last time we reviewed this?”
- “What I’m hearing is… [this]. Is that your understanding too?”
- “So what I think you just said is… [thing I think you just said]. Is that accurate?”
- “Let me reflect that back to you, and you can assess how close I am.”
- “So if we do [this], does everyone here agree that’s the next step?”
I’d rather be disappointed now than disappointed and overwhelmed later by having to pivot. It’s good to be agile and be able to pivot, but it’s bad to have to pivot over and over again. (You have to regain your balance after every pivot. Sometimes this rebalancing is quick, and other times it never quite happens. Pivoting always comes with a risk, just like not pivoting can be risky.)
Expectation setting is one of the most valuable skills you can develop, especially if you are working as part of an agile team. Not only can expectation setting help you become a badass at work, but it will also help you build better relationships with friends and family.
Don’t assume that the world is the same as it was last time. Set expectations early and often.