Project Plan: Surface Expectation Differences Early

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Stakeholders and project managers often judge the success of a project plan meeting by how well everyone gets along. But they are making a mistake. One of the key outcomes from the planning process should be to surface any conflicts about the scope, deliverables and resources.  It is better to have those disagreements aired and resolved during the planning phase than have them erupt half way through the project. Project Plan Main Page

Project Plan Step One: Surface Expectation Differences

First, as the project manager, you do not take sides in the conflict.  Your best position is that you don’t care which side wins. You just want the conflict resolved before work begins on the project. Basically, you are on the sidelines for the whole project plan meeting. But you periodically sprinkle gasoline on any smoldering embers of conflict until they are all put out.

Why should you go to this trouble?  Why not smooth-over any conflicts about expectations and requirements now? That will get the project plan approved and let you start work.  That’s what the boss wants. The answer is that the conflicts you smooth-over in the project planning meeting always rear their ugly heads halfway through the project. Then they slow the work down and may even cause problems with the availability of team resources.  Experienced project managers know that there will be plenty of unexpected conflicts that arise as the project progresses. You don’t need to have known conflicts festering and bursting into flames late in the project. Resolving these expectation differences now, during the planning meeting, is a form of risk avoidance.

Project Plan Step Two: Draft the Project Plan

The second part of this technique is in how you write your draft project plan.  As an example, on a customer service project you would never define a deliverable with wording like, “Improve the quality of answers given to customers who call Customer Service.” That’s a terrible way to define a deliverable. It’s just motherhood and apple pie mush.  It’s not specific enough for anyone to disagree or raise differences of opinion. It allows every stakeholder to define their own expectation for the accuracy level. And their expectations will vary wildly.  You need to surface and resolve these differences, then get agreement on their expectations of the deliverable.

Here is another problem with the “Improve quality of the answers given to customers who call Customer Service” statement. It doesn’t give you or the team any of idea what the accuracy level goal is on the answers given to customers. Here is a better way to define the deliverable; “Improve the accuracy of answers given to customers from 61% to 71%.  Some stakeholders may want 90% accuracy and others will want less.  But now the discussion can focus on the differences in cost and time (duration) between various specific accuracy levels.project plan

Once again, your role is not to take sides or voice your own opinion.  Instead, your job is to quantify the tradeoffs in terms of cost and time between the various accuracy levels. You use project management software to model these options. For example, you would say, “Going to 91% accuracy would increase costs  by $18,000 and increase the project duration by 8 weeks.  Is that what you want?” The one issue you are very firm on is that no improvement in accuracy is free. The tradeoff always has a cost and duration impact. Your stance on this is very important.  If you let your stakeholders believe that they can change the project scope for free, you will face a constant flow of change requests throughout the project. And, stakeholders will be angry if you tell them there is a cost.

You learn all of those skills in our project management basics courses. Take a look at the basics course in your specialty.

At the beginning, when you and Dick talk to design your program and what you want to learn, you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage. Chose you course and then select the which specialty case study from business, or marketing,  or construction, or healthcare, or consulting.  That way your case studies and project plans, schedules and presentations will fit your desired specialty.

  1. 101 Project Management Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management


Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on