Chances are that unless you ask you will not get what you want.

Unless you ask, you’re not going to get what you want.

In the long run, goals must be based on our expectations. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines expectation as “a belief that something will happen or is likely to happen.”  They provide the motivation to begin a new project or to plan for the future. The belief that something good will happen can provide a significant amount of energy to propel toward our goals. When we discover that our expectations are impossible they stop being motivators. I realized many years ago that the possibility of winning the lottery is not a motivator to me, I understand statistics and therefore I don’t play. For me, saying that I expect to win the lottery has no motivational power because I have no expectation of winning.  If I were to set a goal of winning the lottery with no real expectation of achieving that goal I would be setting myself up for disappointment. Another example of the impact of the mismatch between goals and expectations can be seen in poorly set project estimates.  Occasionally (I am being kind), I see PMOs or managers set an estimate for a project team without input or participation.  Usually the estimate is wrong, and wrong low.  There are many physiological reasons for setting a low estimate, ranging from creating an anchor bias to providing the team a stretch goal. In most cases, no one on the team is fooled (at least more than once), therefore no one is motivated.

Second criteria for maximizing to potential for meeting expectations is to voice the expectations.  My wife occasionally berates me about letting unvoiced expectations get in the way of a good time. These expectations usually have to do with the dining while out and about. Expectations that are unvoiced, and therefore potentially unmet, can cause anger and resentment. We can’t simply assume that the picture we have in our head about the future will just happen.  A number of times over my career as a manager, employees have come to me to let me know that they had wanted to be assigned to a specific project after someone else had volunteered.   In most cases these employees had formed an expectation about their role and the project but had never voiced that expectation.  Because the expectation was unvoiced it had far less chance of being met.

We need to make sure our expectations of the future are possible.  Expectations that are goals are important motivators but only if they our our expectations therefore those we believe they will happen. Voicing our expectations is also an important step towards realizing those expectations.  Like the raise you want but have not taken the opportunity to ask for.  An unvoiced expectation is less apt to evoke feedback, for example, if you asked for a raise that did not match your performance  as a child you may well have been told no.  But, unless you ask and make your case, you may never get that raise.  Set your goals and expectations, share them and listen to the feedback.  Avoiding impossible and unvoiced expectations will  educe the potential for disappointment and resentment.

Sometimes the way forward can be foggy.

Sometimes the way forward can be foggy.

We’ve all been asked for an off-the-cuff estimate and gotten burnt. What is more problematic is that we continue to do it. Worse yet, even though we know this form of behavior is destructive, we feel we have no choice.  Not answering is not allowed. The behavior is rationalized by viewing the off-the-cuff estimate as a time honored IT tradition.  What is wrong with tradition? A first estimate is just a number right? 

We forget that an estimate, even in the most benign case, sets expectations. The number, range of numbers or frame of reference creates a set of boundaries in the requestor’s mind and, as importantly, in your mind. The changes which will be required as knowledge overtakes unknowns will require more effort, than if you’d gotten the phrase, “I’ll get back to you….” out of your mouth.  

Estimates are driven by many factors.  I would like to focus on the grand-daddy of all factors: requirements.  The love/hate relationship between the hard cold number of an estimate and the fuzzy concept that is requirements begins even before a project starts.  It begins with the initial hallway conversation.  How accurate can an estimate for a project be when all you have is a one line description (or at best a paragraph in an email)?  The goal of requirements is to describe the problem in terms of a solution state; what the project is supposed to do when it is complete.  Knowing what you want to end up with is the knowledge that makes creating an estimate possible (let alone what makes creating the project possible). However, changes in the knowledge of the project team and the conceptual ideas describing the solution before requirements follows a non-linear path. The one line description is jump into the future without all of the facts, which reduces the probability of an estimate being correct. 

There are many strategies to address the requirements-estimation conundrum.  Methods such as estimation funnel (a process strategy), analogous estimates, estimating by phase (a project methodology strategy) and the planning components of Agile methods (a different project methodology strategy) will address significant portions of the conundrum.  These techniques work by relating knowledge growth to accuracy.  Regardless of the logic of relating estimates to knowledge, breaking the underlying belief in an estimate as an absolute is not for the timid.  Improving the relationship between requirements and estimation within given company will be a factor of the organizational culture in effect. 

When is an estimate just a number?  Maybe the question should be, when isn’t an estimate just a number?  When is an estimate not a promise? When is it not a contract with your boss, customer or both? The crass answer might be when you can the answer the following questions; when will it be done, how long it will take, or how much will the cost definitively. Or maybe when changes to requirements or processes can occur without an impact to the delivery date, cost or the hours you’ll have to work.  Providing a bad estimate early in a project creates a catch 22 for the project manager.  When change occurs it reduces the project manager’s and estimator’s credibility, which can lead to an aggressive defense behavior by not hearing anything that endangers the original position.

A version of this essay is on the SPaMCAST number 6.

Expectations, when positive, can be an important motivation tool.  The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines expectation as “a belief that something will happen or is likely to happen” [1]   They provide the motivation to begin a new project or to plan for the future. The belief that something good will happen can provide a significant amount of energy to propel toward our goals.

Goals, in the long run, must be based on our expectations. When we discover that our expectations are impossible they stop being motivators. I realized many years ago that the possibility of winning the lottery

Chances are that unless you ask you will not get what you want.

Chances are that unless you ask you will not get what you want.

is not a motivator to me, I understand statistics and therefore I don’t play. For me, saying that I expect to win the lottery has no motivational power because I have no expectation of winning unless someone hands me a ticket.  If I were to set a goal of winning the lottery with no real expectation of achieving that goal I would be setting myself up for disappointment. Another example of the impact of the mismatch between goals and expectations can be seen in poorly set project estimates.  Occasionally (I am being kind), I see PMOs or managers set an estimate for a project team without input or participation.  Usually the estimate is wrong, and wrong low.  One could suggest that there are many physiological reasons for setting a low estimate, ranging from creating an anchor bias to providing the team a stretch goal. In most cases no one on the team is fooled (at least more than once) therefore no one is motivated.

Second criteria for maximizing to potential for meeting expectations is to voice the expectations.  My wife occasionally berates me about letting unvoiced expectations get in the way of a good time. These expectations usually have to do with the dining while out and about. Expectations that are unvoiced and therefore potentially unmet can cause anger and resentment. We can’t simply assume that the picture we have in our head about the future will just happen.  A number of times over my career as a manager, employees have come to me to let me know that they had wanted to be assigned to a specific project after someone else had volunteered.   In most cases these employees had formed an expectation about their role and the project but had never voiced that expectation.  Because the expectation was unvoiced it had far less chance of being met.

As we contemplate the New Year we need to make sure our expectations of the future are possible.  Expectations that are goals are important motivators but only if they our our expectations therefore those we believe they will happen. Voicing our expectations is also an important step towards realizing those expectations.  Like the raise you want but have not taken the opportunity to ask for.  An unvoiced expectation is less apt to evoke feedback, for example, if you asked for a raise that did not match your performance  as a child you may well have been told no.  But, unless you ask and make your case, you may never get that raise.  Setting our expectations for the New Year is no different.  Set your goals and expectations, share them and listen to the feedback.  Avoiding impossible and unvoiced expectations will  educe the potential for disappointment and resentment in the New Year.


[1] “Expectation.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 22 Dec. 2013. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/expectation&gt;