Setting expectations

Hindsight is so humbling. It took me 45 years of professional life to arrive at the following conclusion:

Setting expectations correctly is far more important than the actual work that you do.

I have been on many projects where we accomplished miracles, only to incur heavy management censure for our disappointing performance.

I have even been fired while producing the output of several design engineers. I realized much later this was because I was disappointing more people than I was satisfying. It was small comfort that I was replaced by four engineers.

It took me years to learn how to set expectations properly and I continued to work harder and harder instead of working smarter. I kept trying to work more efficiently, while ignoring the fact that some of the least capable engineers I knew were being promoted above me.

I used to sneer privately at these suck-ups, as I thought of them, instead of recognizing that they excelled in one of the most important skills of corporate life. They understood people better than they understood technology. They found out what management wanted to hear and tailored their commitments to confirm to management expectations.

The fact they had no clue how to deliver on these commitments does not lessen the critical importance of what they were doing. They focused on setting expectations that made management feel comfortable. As a result, they got put in charge of the project while I did the work and took the heat if expectations weren’t met.

It took many repeats of this process before I understood that working smarter did not mean working more efficiently. It meant setting expectations that could be met and were satisfactory to the customer/client/manager/whatever.

I might say in my defense, that in 45 years I rarely did the same task twice. The hardware development and software development projects I worked on were almost all ground-breaking events for companies in their startup phases of corporate life. When I managed projects in large corporations, these projects were intended to change the way the company did business.

The end result was that almost every project had a deadline, but no realistic yardstick to estimate the time required to accomplish the task in that particular company. We would give management our best (often optimistic) estimate and then work ourselves into a frenzy trying to meet our self-imposed deadlines.

Setting management expectations takes more courage than it does to come up with a revolutionary new design. Perhaps that’s why technical people often go out on a limb and agree to unrealistic deadlines. What happens as a result is they get shot later instead of immediately.

If you have read this far, take a look at your current work situation and see how you might adjust expectations to a more realistic level. If you can’t, at least you will know what is likely to happen to you when the project ends. Update your resume and network like crazy. You will need those contacts.

If there is enough interest, I will write about strategies for setting expectations.

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