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Alison Rood


Core skills facilitator | Digital project manager

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How can L&D support project managers with setting and managing expectations?


L&D professionals are often responsible for the learning and development of every role within an organisation. Finding the time to go beyond procedures and understand each department’s challenges can prove difficult, yet this is one area where you can truly add value.

In this article, we explore the challenges faced by those working in digital project management, although many of the solutions presented lend themselves to leaders in a variety of fields.

Digital project managers, at any one time, may be faced with a new digital project or phase and up against the usual constraints of time, budget and quality.

Clients rarely understand what they require or at the very least find it hard to articulate what they actually need.

In my experience over the last 15 years, I have typically found (I hasten to add not always) that clients rarely understand what they require or at the very least find it hard to articulate what they actually need.

As the service provider, the Project Manager (PM) needs to align the expectations of the image the client has in their head with the final product or service, at a value the client deems acceptable - which usually equates to ‘I want a Porsche but I only want to pay for a Robin Reliant and expect it to be of the same quality as the Porsche and I want it yesterday.’

Here are my top tips for managing this balancing act of time, budget and quality.

Teach them to ‘sell’

Here’s a question I hear a lot from stakeholders: ‘But why do I need to pay for a PM?’. The PM may feel very irritated and angry about this - I know I did.

Placing anger aside and refraining from screaming, they use their automatic response of, ‘well if you want this project to run efficiently and effectively then you need a PM.’

The PM is a central role, it's the glue that keeps the project and team together and organisations soon realise when one isn’t there. Support the PMs in your business to embrace this question and get a new perspective so that they actually welcome this question the next time they hear it.

Features and benefits

A feature is often an action or task, e.g. a PM will hold regular meetings with the project team. This is great but doesn’t mean much to the person questioning the need for their role. They need to sell their role on the benefits it brings to the client.

A benefit is what outcome a person can expect from the feature, e.g. these regular team meetings will ensure everyone stays up to date with progress and knows exactly what’s expected of them and by when.

In summary, grab their role profile and support them by reviewing their responsibilities and reframe them as benefits. Ultimately, what is the tangible value they bring to the project and client

Play, rewind, record

“...a visual example of one of the most common failures in Customer's expectations in relation to project delivery. They want the 1st Spiderman quality but it must be delivered in the same time as the 10-second attempt…” Mo Selim Art.

The collation of unclear requirements and the lack of questioning assumptions made at the start of the project can often lead to the misalignment of client expectations.

One way your PMs can get everyone on the same page and keep them there is to use collaborative tools such as story mapping and user stories, including clear sign off criteria.

Support the development of the PM in having these conversations, and raise their awareness of the importance of playing them back and keeping a record which is easily accessible by everyone, e.g. on a RealTimeBoard or Basecamp. This will aid in keeping expectations aligned.

People get frustrated when they feel they are not being acknowledged or their voice is going unheard - this is when assumptions are made. Ensure your PMs are equipped with the skills to cut through these assumptions.

As the manager, they need to continually assess the context of the situation they are presented with there and then.

Challenge them to ensure they ask questions and actively listen to the responses, and ask: 'do you have anything further to add?'. To achieve this they need to know how to remain focused and present.

Seeing, hearing, feeling

It can be useful to evaluate the communication skills of your PMs and if necessary help them to develop them. One useful concept for them to understand is how a person’s representational system influences the language they use, how they communicate, how they experience the world around them, and how they share their emotions.

This system typically comprises of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic stimuli. Things they can listen out for include phrases such as: ‘Can I see it?’; ‘Can we talk about it?’; ‘It needs to feel right.’

When communicating, they should learn to adapt how they present information according to the person or team in front of them at that time. Get to know how each team member and the client absorbs information.

For example, with the more ‘visual’ members of their team, ensure they are presenting them the information visually, e.g. a Gantt chart or a wireframe - they need to be able to see it.

When communicating, they should learn to adapt how they present information according to the person or team in front. 

For auditory people, give them the opportunity to listen to the plans and talk it through with them, this will help them to make sense of the overall project.

As for kinaesthetic people, of which there are fewer globally, take time to ensure they feel right about the project, they’ll often lead on gut instinct.

Where they don’t know the preferred style of their audience, use all three, this will help them assimilate information more easily, which in turn helps to reach a shared understanding.

Sharing this concept, well known and utilised by all L&D professionals, heightens the skill set of your PMs.

Control the controllable

Often when managing a project, a PM will have new requirements dropped in at the last minute by the client (often known as the ‘curveball’). This can leave them and their team feeling like everything else has now been thrown out of sync and it’s easy for them to feel as though they’re losing control.

Your PM’s need to build resilience and one key to remaining resilient is to learn how to pace yourself and gain perspective.

Support them in keeping a sense of proportion; what is reasonable and what is impossible for them, their team and the project. Advise them they have the option to choose how they think, feel and act in response to the circumstances in front of them.

Encourage them to focus on what they can change and accept that which they can’t (known as the ‘locus of control’). This will help to reduce investing time and energy on factors outside their control. Ultimately, what is important is their attitude and behaviour when responding.

Walk the talk

The biggest challenge faced by your PMs is when constraints on time, budget, or quality are imposed - it can create stress for them and for their team.

This stress can often lead to an individual taking actions which breach their own values and may mean they themselves (as well as others) perceive a lack of integrity.

As a leader or manager, ultimately they need to be able to accept the responsibility for the project outcome, whether it is good or bad and without assigning blame to others. This accountability means they need to engage with their team and the client.

Remain honest and open about any changes to the project that may well have an impact on time, budget and quality.

When change happens, help them see the value of gaining clarity and discussing the possible approaches and the feasibility of each option with the team.

This next part is key. Whatever is agreed, they need to demonstrate congruence between what they say and what they do and act consistentlyT. heir words and actions need to match.

This act of congruence helps to build up mutual trust and respect - in project management and throughout a business, it takes years to build a relationship and just seconds to destroy it.

Choose their next move

There will always be demands of shorter timescales and lower budgets with the expectation that the level of quality is to remain the same. However, how the PM chooses to respond to these expectations ultimately lies with them as a manager.

Supporting them to identify and sell the benefit of their role as the PM to the client means they feel their position is of value at the outset of the project.

Collaborative conversations where the success of the project are articulated and agreed ensures everyone involved in the project is on the same page.

There will always be demands of shorter timescales and lower budgets with the expectation that the level of quality is to remain the same. 

When assumptions are kept in check with questioning and active listening this means less confusion is created throughout the project.

Information presented in a way all stakeholders can understand creates a shared understanding. Focusing on what they can control and letting go of that which they cannot means time is spent in all the right places.

Finally, acting with integrity means they are never breaching their values and you are maintaining and increasing the respect their team and clients have for them.

Not only Digital Project Managers but leaders across your organisation will be able to utilise these soft skills to improve the way in which their projects are run.

Author Profile Picture
Alison Rood

Core skills facilitator | Digital project manager

Read more from Alison Rood

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