Psychology in IT: Estimate, Promise, and Deliver

After being part of many customer or internal projects, It’s always amazing how badly people manage expectations. Setting the right expectations and delivering them should be easy by utilizing basic human psychology. That’s the mandatory part of customer and organizational success.  

A basic skill in IT is estimating how much work, calendar time, money, or some other resource the specific task or project will take. This is a common pattern happening almost every day but results vary greatly. Opportunistic business and sales often drive quick and over-positive results, although reality around can be very different. But it can be people’s mindset also. Positive, hopeful, and pleasing people can easily promise more than they can deliver. Saying always yes to whichever job task is asked and over-estimating own delivery capabilities, puts all people in a hard place. Nobody can win. 

Instead, telling customer a realistic and sometimes unpleasant truth won’t actually hurt anybody. Truth and disappointment are only a slight momentary scratch on the surface. People adapt, accept and move on. You can also be ignored when your story doesn’t fit into the other’s agenda. But then you have made your point and the following possible failure is not your problem anymore. Do your best and leave the rest. You don’t have to fix everything that someone else messes up. Of course, there is a balance in how far you can stretch these estimates and promises. Be polite, be reasonable, and don’t use ultimate ends. It’s all about finding a mutual agreement, a viable solution that satisfies both parties. The common ground is somewhere in the middle. 

Estimating starts with evaluating how big the task is and how much time it will take to complete. Be realistic. In the current IT landscape, it’s an anomaly if everything works like a charm without problems. Usually, there are many hindrances along the way and even the tiniest thing can take incredible effort and calendar time to get done. Also, the more people and parties are involved, the more slowly things progress. Thus you can give overly pessimistic estimates that usually meet reality reasonably well. This is also good for yourself because then you have actual time to do that job well. 

Now you have set the expectations, but others can disagree. The business could have already made customer-facing promises and schedules independently without asking you. They are usually run by quick revenue that can be hard to meet. That’s a point where things start to go wrong and are hard to fix later. The customer gets inflated promises and starts to expect quick results. Fortunately, savvy customers know that and reset peaked inflations on their side. But the problem persists. Because work is usually highly dependent on other groups and people, one delay or deadline change affects the whole workflow. Changing priorities, moving deadlines and wrong expectations start to spread inside your organization messing up the whole project. 

My only solution is to give realistic-pessimistic promises that you can truly fulfill. You set expectations for your customers and internal organization, but also for yourself. You have to deliver what you have promised. The psychology here is: if expectations are low, you can claim them easily. The trick is to set expectations just on the right level: low enough that you can reach them, but high enough to meet the other party’s expectations. After calibrating expectations, it’s easy to fulfill them, because you know you can do it and it doesn’t need any extra powers.

That’s also my greatest career advice. Set goals just above the expected or commonly accepted baseline, don’t over-deliver. Then you meet these goals relatively easily and simultaneously keep others happy by delivering slightly more than expected. It’s a win-win situation. A positive surprise is best what you can bring on for the customers, organization, and yourself. The mental effect is powerful. You can shine by doing everyday work on a normal level, but there is also room to learn, prepare, grow, and raise the bar over time. Still, it needs strong self-discipline and patience to keep your secret powers hidden and release them slowly and controlled manner over time.

Ultimately this expectation-setting is about communication, transparency, and trust. You have to build and earn the trust. Trust is earned by communicating transparently and fulfilling expectations. When you are trusted, your value is bigger. Today people appreciate transparency and open communication. Customer experience depends on that. Sometimes business drives like a mad but you have to do your job to slow down, earth the expectations, and be the voice of reason. Don’t let things escalate to chaos by cultivating false expectations and ever-changing schedules. Being transparent and trusted means you promise what you can actually deliver. That should be the guiding principle for any user experience. But perhaps the most important thing is that it’s about taking care of your own reputation, trustworthiness, and eventually whole success in your career. 

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