managing expectations

Yesterday I used the phrase “In that case, we’ll need to manage their expectations.” I’ve used it a million times before. Today I feel it smells bad. Here’s the background:

A new team is just starting a new project, to develop a new product ready for a trade show in just over six weeks. A great deal rests on this new product being a smash hit at the show, and the Product Owner has a glorious vision involving gaping mouths and million-pound cheques. The concept for the product is genuinely stunning, but there are only six weeks in which to develop it.

We estimated the stories in the brand new backlog using a very simple points system. The points relate to nothing but each other – “this seems to be twice as hard as that, so if that’s a ‘2’ then this is a ‘4’.” And being a new team, we have no idea how many points we’ll get through in a week. When we know our velocity, we’ll be able to draw a line in the backlog and tell the Product Owner what he can expect to be able to demonstrate at the show. But as of today we have no velocity, because this is Week One. So we can’t draw the line. So he may already be expecting too much of us…

But “managing expectations” smells wrong to me now. It smacks of control, and control always arises from fear. We are afraid of presenting bad news next week, if the line turns out to be not far enough through the backlog to match the Product Owner’s vision. We are afraid of disappointing him, and of what his reaction to that might be. But instead of controlling, I feel we should be open and honest: “At this stage, we don’t know enough to draw the line. You’ll know as soon as we do.” We have to trust the Product Owner to be open and honest with himself, too, and to recognise that his vision is not yet based on facts. And this is where being agile is the hardest…

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3 thoughts on “managing expectations

  1. Pingback: 2005 silk and spinach top ten « silk and spinach

  2. I use this phrase a lot too and I agree with your point, however it comes from bitter experience that most POs don’t understand why we can’t give accurate estimates from day 1, and get very nervous when we say “we don’t know that yet”. The word ‘estimate’ has lost its true meaning, and teams are now afraid of deadlines created from their estimates, created at a time when little was known about the project or the team’s velocity. We manage expectations as a way of protecting ourselves as honesty sends POs into a blind panic!

    We now live in a world where everyone claims to be Agile, but this in my opinion is absolute rubbish. For every 100 people I meet who claims to do Agile, about 5 can actually walk the walk.

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