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Three Dangerous Expectations You’ve Got to Manage


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Everyone on a project has expectations, and plenty of projects have been sunk when expectations didn’t line up with reality. Here are the three areas that give rise to dangerous expectations, and how to deal with them.

Unrealistic Deadlines Aren’t Realistic

Deadline expectations are very difficult to deal with since they go to the heart of a project. Deadlines are time-based, and time is money.

Those involved in the expansion of Plant Vogtle in Georgia have surprising stories about project delays. At one point, even after four critical activities posted delays averaging 325 days, project executives were still raising expectations of getting the schedule back on track. The project participants obviously didn’t deliver. The expectation was to be “completing 2.3 percent of the project per month by the end of the year.” Instead, the July through December average was 0.7 percent per month, according to Engineering News Record reporting.

Deadline expectations are very difficult to deal with since they go to the heart of a project. Deadlines are time-based, and time is money. There are also different theories on how to set deadlines. Some claim you should compress the schedule because “work expands to fill the available time.” Others say you should impose aggressive goals to get people to perform better than they usually do. Then, there are those who contend you should set deadlines that reflect the time allotted in the estimate. There are plenty of other theories but where they all fall short is when they create unrealistic deadlines.

A deadline that is unrealistic sets up unrealistic expectations. You have several options here. First, you might be able to adjust your way out of the unrealistic deadline. You could use a different method or you might reassign resources to make the deadline realistic. Sometimes if you play hardball with the schedule, you can “find time” you didn’t know you had. Another option is to find ways to improve how you deliver on the activities so the deadline fits the reality. If you can’t make the deadline realistic, then it’s time to help others understand why.

This is never easy, especially if you have stakeholders who will lose money. The upside is that when you help people face reality early on, there’s less pain in the long run. And another interesting thing often happens. Once people face the reality of the unrealistic deadline, they suddenly become ready to look at solutions they wouldn’t have considered earlier. They might consider a change or even a reduction in the scope. It comes down to showing them options for reducing their losses. If you can’t match expectations, you still might be able to reduce the pain.  

A Resource Shortage Gets People Upset
Project participants expect to have enough resources to complete the tasks in front of them. It doesn’t matter if planners have figured out they can get by with two fewer people or one less piece of equipment. All that matters are what they expected to have available for their work. This is a classic conflict that happens between those who own and plan projects, and those who must do the work.

People who plan the work are looking at historical productivity figures, estimates, and the methods used, to decide the staffing and equipment levels. If they are highly accomplished, and they also consider the experience levels of the crews that will actually do the work, their plan should be adequate. However, it’s not possible or even necessary to factor in every potential variable. That means there are times when resources aren’t adequate. And that’s when expectations turn to disappointment.

It is far better to address resource expectations as soon as they’re known than to wait until people are facing the task without the resources they planned on.

It is far better to address resource expectations as soon as they’re known than to wait until people are facing the task without the resources they planned on. It doesn’t matter if they are employees, or subcontractors, or even material suppliers, if their work will be more challenging because they don’t have what they thought they’d have, you’re going to have upset people.

So, get out in front of resource constraints as soon as possible. Maybe you can reorder tasks, so the shortage disappears. Or you might find you can substitute resources at one place, while creating a shortage which is easier to deal with. Sometimes you can adjust budget line items to make up for a resource shortage. And at other times, you might decide the shortage is acceptable because you’ve got some float in the schedule. When you can’t fix it, let people know early on and give them enough information so they know what to expect, and when to expect it.

The Big Problems with Stakeholder Expectations
Everybody involved in the project is a stakeholder but they have different levels of interest and different levels of patience. When owner stakeholders aren’t having their expectations met, you’ve got a bigger problem than when a material supplier isn’t. Everyone’s expectations are important, but when you have to decide between two of them, you need a clear understanding of whose is more important. This gets murky when your owner has surrogates, like bankers, insurance reps, and design people acting on their behalf. Keeping them all straight is challenging but communication is the key.

Everyone’s expectations are important, but when you have to decide between two of them, you need a clear understanding of whose is more important.


People don’t like surprises, so keep them informed. Just as important, ask for feedback, so everyone knows their input is welcome. Be especially aware of stakeholders, even your own team members who seem disinterested. People get involved in projects for many reasons, and some didn’t have a choice. If they resent their involvement, or are just disinterested, they pose the risk of omissions. By not communicating key aspects and insights in a timely manner, they can send a schedule into a tailspin. If they forget, just because other things are more important to them, others might have to make up for information that arrives too late or not at all.

No matter what your role on a construction project, you affect the expectations of others, even if they’re just depending on you to show up. If you manage any aspect of a project, your effect on expectations goes up immensely. When you understand the places where you affect expectations and take charge of those, you empower yourself and those around you.

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