The Tricky Thing About Expectations

The Tricky Thing About Expectations

Avatar von Steffen Hartmann

Expectations are everywhere. Especially in business, one overly used term is “managing expectations.” We have to manage the expectations of our stakeholders, business, and users – to name a few. 

The unspoken truth is that it is not possible to manage expectations. They are something personal that lives inside a person’s perception, and you can try, but you can hardly change or even manage them. So it is a good idea to stop thinking about expectations management and find a more accessible and objective way of aligning expected outcomes and results.

The problem with expectations

The core problem when talking about expectations is that they live in all of us as a subjective picture of how things should look, feel or behave as the result of an action or task.

Let’s take an easy example: Please think about a car and keep the first picture in mind. Every reader now would have a different representation of a car in mind. Was it a Porsche, Mercedes, Ford, or, what is the color – red, blue, white, black?

Now the problem is visible. Expectations are very different, and even if the questions are formulated more specifically like “Please think about a red Porsche,” the pictures will be completely different. This is the fact that makes managing expectations impossible because our expectations are the outcomes of our perception, learnings, and mental models. 

It is even more complex because we can not eliminate our expectations. Even if you thought about a red Porsche after the specific question, the old car picture would be present again when the question gets unspecific. It’s wired individually to our brains, and it will stick there.

Don’t take expectations too seriously

Expectations are a strong belief that something will happen or be the case, to follow the definition. Often they are mistaken as something that needs to be fulfilled.

But first, expectations are just expectations. There is no promise that things will work out like expected; they are just a belief or a wish about how things should end up. This is a lesson we learn daily in our lives, but in business, we suddenly think that we manage everything, even the expectations of others. 

Suppose the focus is set on fulfilling expectations. This will end up in a dilemma. Every time output is evaluated by the upfront expectations, there will be no match. Expectations are in first just expectations, nothing more or less. They will not help align a result.

How the get out of the dilemma

When managing and relying on expectations are not helpful, how can we get to a common understanding of an expected result? A differentiation between problem and solution is needed to get out of this trap.

Talking about expectations, they are most of the time focused on a solution and ignoring the underlying problem. As a result, managing expectations is, in reality, the urge to find a solution that includes all the different beliefs of a group of people. Beyond this, the problem will be forgotten and lose focus. A refocus is needed, back to the problem and aways from beliefs about which solutions will be the one and only.

Everyone solves problems differently, and every solution that fixes the initial problem is valid, even if the solution is different from expected.

To capture and focus on problems, setting goals helps a lot. Goals are an aim or desired result, allowing us to specify what result to achieve after solving a problem. The advantage is that they can be much broader in their definition and keep less space for misunderstanding if they are set up right. Goals are a way to objectify expectations and are shifting the thinking away from solutions to fixing problems. 

Setting the right goals

To set the right goals, it is helpful to move away from the way goals are set in business typically. They should not only rely on numbers. All information must be included to understand when a problem is solved and how the world could look after this problem is gone. 

Setting goals starts with thinking about the results that should be achieved and the obstacles on the way. It is about the “what” to complete. How to get there is not part of the goal; this is part of the problem resolution progress towards the goal. To capture the “what” in a practical way, SMART goal setting is a good guideline. 

Following SMART goal setting, goals should be,

  • Specific about the expected result
  • Measurable on goal completion
  • Attainable in a realistic environment
  • Realistic about the desired outcome
  • Time-bound on completion or revision

Moving from expectations to goals

Moving from managing expectations to goal setting is not a hard way to go. It starts with switching the thinking from “building a specific solution” to “solving problems to achieve a goal.” This little nudge in thinking will avoid getting stuck in the dilemma of capturing and managing many non-compatible expectations. With the existence of many different solution ideas, it is crucial to align on the problem. Also, output or results can be solution agnostic. 

In the end, it is essential to stop trying to meet expectations. They can surely guide and help better understand people’s needs and motivations, but always with the knowledge that they are impossible to meet. Talking about goals instead will help people think about the obstacles before thinking about possible solutions. Based on this, goals can be set, and a shared picture of the expected results can emerge. 

Aiming toward these goals is more important than meeting expectations because they target not a personal or single point of view. They cover a holistic view of the results, results that are based on solved problems and not preferred solutions. 

Expectations are great …

Expectations are great, and everyone has them, but making them less critical in our thinking could be good advice. This way of thinking will release pressure from all involved parties because it is possible to focus on solving problems again.

The only expectation that stays is the one that the problem will be solved, and this expectation is something that can be met.

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