Manage Expectations, or They Will Manage You

September 2011
By Capt. Joseph A. Grace Jr., USN (Ret.), SIGNAL Magazine

This is as simple as a tale of two airports.

In the first airport, while we were waiting to depart, we learned that our flight was going to be delayed. About 45 minutes before departure, the gate agent began telling all of the passengers that she expected a delay because of weather in Chicago. Because our flight originated there, it was likely that it would not be on time. Although tired and frustrated, all of those present were reasonably satisfied, calm and able to make arrangements to manage the interruption. Each time there was an update, that gate agent quickly informed the passengers—who, although not happy with the situation, were calm, courteous and appreciative of her diligence. We eventually cheerfully boarded the flight—tired, late but without issue. She managed our expectations.

In quite a stark contrast at the second airport, as the passengers were ready to board, the gate attendant came on and said, “The plane’s broken; we don’t have another plane,” and went off the air. Passengers began looking for answers to the questions of, “Will we get another plane? What’s broken? Is it fixable? What time will we be leaving?” This gate attendant became defensive and argumentative, and soon we had a very unruly crowd at Gate 14. People started grumbling that they would never fly this airline again; to which she replied, “Go ahead. Don’t fly us ….” This flight eventually boarded, but with a very angry, confused and unprepared group of passengers. What was different? The attendant at Gate 14 did not manage expectations.

People like to be informed and know what they can expect in just about every facet of their lives. It is no different for the government contracting officer or the vendor with whom they are working to deliver services or products.

Government/military members expect that they will be able to do their job with the tools that they are provided, and vendors expect that they will receive a fair payment and treatment for the product or service that they desire to provide to their government customer. There is an expectation of fairness, openness and timely action—on both sides.

Government organizations that have a very open and effective contracting shop are generally very good at managing the expectations of both their own constituents and their vendors.  These organizations also are usually very open to meeting with contractors and technical business experts to learn all that they can about new technology and capability, as well as build strong relationships that serve them well. These agencies are a dream to deal with, and results often show this diligence.

In stark contrast, the organizations that separate themselves from their industry partners often create a difficult environment frequently dominated by egocentric personalities, vague requirements and the constant perception that an inside deal is inevitable. These organizations create the unruly, angry and confused atmosphere that existed at Gate 14; the difference is the management of expectations.

Amidst the recent debt crisis, it essential to manage the expectations on all sides. This includes shortening the buying cycle, relieving redundant purchases, leveraging investments, eliminating stovepipe solutions and not throwing good money after bad decisions. Savings are strange and elusive..

Both sides are guilty of false expectations as well as a “buy and forget” mentality. Government has the requirement of delivering capability and service. The taxpayer is the ultimate recipient of those technology decisions and investment. The industry partner has the requirement delivering what is promised and following up with the customer rather than just moving to the next opportunity. Partnership is a two way street, and the management of expectations becomes the foundation of that partnership.

Whether it is the flight delay or the delay in getting a part for a car repair, in most cases, people are reasonable when they are kept informed. Clear-cut management of expectations is a proven expertise.  It would be better to hear, “We apologize for the delay and appreciate your patience. As a way of saying thank you, I’ve asked the flight attendants to offer free food and lots of free drinks. Thank you for your business, please enjoy your flight.”

Capt. Joseph A. Grace Jr., USN (Ret.), is the president and chief executive officer of Grace and Associates LLC and a former chief information officer for Navy Medicine. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of SIGNAL Magazine.

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