Friday, September 15, 2017

manage expectations: not saying no , under-promise & over-deliver

When people ask "what do you do" to me, I tend to say something along the line "I help people communicate and keep them on track with projects that are involving several different departments, groups and interest and making sure details don't get lost in the shuffle". If there is an interest to delve deeper I usually end up saying something a long the lines of; "it's about managing expectations. Never saying no, and under-promise and over-deliver". The middle part, not saying no, was hard for me in the beginning when people are talking about what they want in a project, the time line and the scope. Most often these are sounding a little, should we say - not reality anchored?

As an example, you talk about a drug screening project involving 200 compounds and 5 types of cells, and they want results in less than a month. It doesn't sound too off the path, it could be done. However, when you factor in that the cells are still in cryo, they haven't been grown in the conditions they are interested in, you don't know their doubling time, and the screening plates aren't made - well then you're looking at at least 8 weeks. And that's even before asking the "oh so important, yet often overlooked question": Who is going to do the work? Can they dedicate all their time to this project?

When I started working in this job, my response to the unrealistic project wish would've been "No, that's not possible", and then listed what time frame was realistic. After you state such a thing (No) the person you are talking to isn't interested in what you are saying anymore since "you are not on their team. You are a negative person. You are not trying.". And that in turn means you have lost the trust and the little leverage you've got. Instead, if you lead with "OK, let's see what we need to do in order to get that done" and you start making a list of facts - with help from the person who is asking for the project - it usually becomes more or less clear that some biological facts make the initial time line impossible and you need to amend the time frame.

I usually start planning the project as it could be done as a serial-connected-project. This to show how long it CAN take if you do all the small parts after one another. This is also showing "the longest time to finish". What you do later is to look for the parts that can be done in parallel, usually there are quite a few that can be done in the same time frame, thus save time and shorten the "time to delivery". Once you show that part to the person who wants the project, they'll be happy that you have found a way to shorten the time and they know that you are working with them "to get it done as fast as possible".

It also means that sometimes you can get people pretty excited since if they think they have to wait until Day 34 to get a result, but you give it to them at day 30 - they're in priority. It most often means that you built in some "buffer time if things don't go right" in your first prediction of time, which is key. Why? Because being late is always a bad thing. I don't care what other people say - it's never OK to be late and over-promise. It makes a lot of people anxious and negative. Most importantly, it makes them lose trust in you, and that's a hard thing to rebuild.

One person I worked with in my previous job always over-promised to new clients. Then they went back to us, the people who were going to "make this happen", and made us come up with ways to deliver in the shorter, extremely optimistic time frame. A lot of times it worked out, although most people involved in the project were overworked in the end of the projects. The times when biology messed up and didn't work with the optimistic time frame (say "optimize the growth conditions" and it took more than three months rather than the estimated 3 weeks), was very disappointing and stressful for everyone.

In short; when you are faced with a too short and optimisti time frame on a project - work really hard with the person telling you their expectations and never say no. Build the trust that you are on their team. Let them see the "impossible" time expectations and see if they can suggest something that will help. This will make them more interested in working with you, and will build trust in your team. Also, work on the over-delivery and find a way to add something extra, however small - since this is also indicating that you care about them and the project. A little extra care goes a long way in this world.

1 comment:

Nina said...

great post Chall! This works even for abiotic stuff I have found out ;) Or bureaucracy. I thought it was my little secret to under-promise and build in huge buffers, it's good to read you have taken this to a very professional level!