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Unrealistic Expectations? Here’s How to Keep Everyone Happy

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Unrealistic expectations are hard-baked into construction projects, both intentionally and unintentionally. Unfortunately, it usually falls to the contractors to deal with them. Here are steps you can take to keep everybody happy.

1. Be The Expert

Own your role in the project through your expertise. As the expert, you can control the quality and timeliness of your project deliverables. You can most likely also accurately assess occuring changes and promptly map out an alternative path to completion with a fairly accurate completion time. Use your expertise to keep things realistic.

2. Communicate Realistically

Unrealistic expectations often begin with poor communications. If a client picks a date of the expected completion and you don't exactly confirm or deny the date, you've just set the stage for a dispute. It's always tempting to tacitly agree and hope for the best. 

Unrealistic expectations often begin with poor communications.

However, asking for a little time to consider your options a wiser course of action. You can use that time to reassure yourself that what you’re asked for is feasible. If what they're asking isn't feasible, you’ll have the time to figure out how to accommodate their request. A big part of being a contractor is solving problems. It's your chance to shine at what you do by turning an unrealistic expectation into reality.  

Nevertheless, there are unrealistic expectations that are just…well, unrealistic. Don't shy away from telling people that what they're expecting is impossible.

3. Dealing With Bona Fide Unrealistic Requirements

Many construction projects rely on things beyond the owner's control for funding and full development. Owners might need to use tax credits that expire at a certain time. They might be at the mercy of third parties who control required real assets. Sometimes, owners have only a specific time to acquire property related to the project. The variables are immense, but such constraints create hard-wired requirements that conspire to make project timelines extremely difficult.

Regardless of the reasons, these bona fide but unrealistic requirements pose serious issues. They make it harder to get team buy-in, especially buy-in from subcontractors and third parties. They make scheduling more difficult. They create the possibility that a series of deadlines will be missed in rapid order. And, they challenge attempts to provide adequate resources without jamming up workspaces. 

When you must face these unrealistic expectations try these tactics.

  • Make a list of scope changes that would make things more realistic
  • Investigate using prefabricated or modular components
  • Consider using different methods or materials
  • Consider using more resources
  • Review quality aspects for needless requirements
  • Consider how better project management and scheduling tools could help

Once you have solutions that both you and the owner can use to make the project more realistic, set the meeting and present your case. While you're at it, mention the potential long-term effects of setting the project on the right course.

For instance, when people are "under the gun," they're more likely to take shortcuts. That has consequences for everything from safety to quality control. Unrealistic expectations will put a lot of pressure on the people who must wrap up activities near the end of the project. Of course, there's also a greater amount of rework, and it's often happening while work proceeds on the next task in line. All in all, unrealistic project requirements increase chaos, risk, and uncertainty.

4. Dealing with Ongoing Unrealistic Expectations

If you're already in the thick of it, and regularly dealing with expectations that don't quite fit reality, the sooner you deal with it the better. Hopefully, you're in the planning or early construction stages; yet even in the late stages of the game, all is not lost, and you have options. 

The primary option is communicating the problems, the reasons for the problems, and the potential solutions. No one person can fix a runaway schedule driven by unrealistic expectations. It takes a team, and that means you have to constantly communicate with team members up and down the project hierarchy.

If you're already in the thick of it, and regularly dealing with expectations that don't quite fit reality, the sooner you deal with it the better.

If your project scope is constantly changing, then you better be quick and accurate when developing, communicating, and getting approvals on change orders. If you have one subcontractor with unrealistic expectations of when another sub will complete their work, you should be getting the two in a room to hash out what's real, and what's not. And, if the owner is expecting unrealistic quality because they like everything to be built like Fort Knox (without the corresponding cost), you need to talk to them and reach a compromise as soon as possible.

Finally, always be aware of manipulative unrealistic expectations. Arbitrarily assigned deadlines can derail a project in many ways. If you want to encourage teamwork and group goal accomplishment, it's better to use tactics other than unrealistic deadlines.

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