Setting v. Managing Expectations

Once upon a time, I represented a client (rather than managed the project) when I met with a senior project manager new to an in-progress project. He informed me that our job together was to “manage the client’s expectations.”

“No,” I replied, “our job is to meet the client’s expectations. Are you saying we didn’t set them correctly in the first place?” Given that the project already underway, he was telling me subliminally either that he thought the project was about to fail or that his predecessor had screwed up.

The difference between setting and managing expectations is more than semantic. Managing expectations – a/k/a damage control – is what you need to do if you haven’t set them appropriately in the first place.

Set Expectations First Rather Than Manage Them Afterwards

To set client expectations, develop, share, and obtain concurrence on what will satisfy the client – deliverables, timeline, communication, cost, and “Done” (known outside the legal world as the Critical Success Factors). Work through this information in the very early days of the project.

Clients will have expectations as a project moves forward. Information abhors a vacuum, so if you don’t set those expectations, the client will make them up – and will likely expect you to accomplish the impossible.

It’s a lot easier to set expectations appropriately when you begin a project rather than to try and rein them in once they’ve taken on a life of their own. It’s better to manage the project (proactive) than to manage expectations (reactive).

Damage Control

But what happens when things go wrong, as they can on even the best-managed project? Opposing counsel, the way a judge reads and applies the law, clients who seemingly make time for you only to complain, other lawyers in your practice needing the folks on your team – all of these, and more, are hard or impossible to manage. Things will go wrong. (Knowing that, you have two choices. Either throw your hands up in the air and find a different line of work, or manage what you can manage to significantly reduce the stuff that will go south.)

Thus you may have to engage in damage control, in managing the client’s expectations.

Start by delivering any bad news directly, before the client hears it from someone else. Then follow up – but let the client take the lead at first. People need time to react to bad news, to process it emotionally, and even those who present an unemotional front have a lot going on behind the scenes. Take your cue from the client as to what she wants to discuss next:

  • Why did it happen? Or,
  • What do we do now?

I’m a big proponent of the latter, which is why I try to incorporate a “yes, but” into the delivery of bad news. However, bearers of bad news aren’t always able to fully steer these conversations, which is why you need to take guidance from the client’s response.

Does the changed situation make client satisfaction unobtainable, in particular the original “Done”? If not, focus on the revised routing, the detour you need to take to reach the client’s goals along with discussion as needed of how you will get there. If so, you need to negotiate a new “Done” with the client.

Obviously, renegotiating the meaning of success is not a conversation you want to engage in unless you have to. The best way to avoid having to manage expectations is to set them appropriately up front, and then manage the project effectively to continue driving toward those expectations.

(This article is adapted from Steven B. Levy’s new book, coming in June: The Legal Project Management Field Guide: Five Tools for Busy Professionals.)


  1. It helps to agree upon the project scope in writing and deliverables with at least 1-2 milestone dates. A ton of ancillary dates is great, but easy to get lost in the matrix of GAANT charts for more complicated projects.

    Any key risks that may tip the project progress sideways on other paths, should be communicated to the client early in the project with alternative action.

    A legal-based project may be different, especially if lawyers bill on the traditional hrly. method..instead as a project pkg. with only add-on, specific costs that the client can see or specialized skills that were required but not anticipated. (But much of this shouldn’t happen, if core legal/business/forensic needs were identified up front.)