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Why Projects Succeed: Commitment Management
By Roger Kastner

“You get the behaviors you measure and reward.” – Jack Welch

I often get asked by clients and colleagues, “What is the most effective way to measure PMs?” Too frequently I respond with a quote borrowed from Chevy Chase in Caddyshack: “By height.”

PMs are often measured by whether their projects are on-time and on-budget. Sure, the PM manages the analysis and extraction process for estimates, the sequencing of tasks, resource planning, etc. But the PM can’t guarantee the quality of the inputs to estimates. I personally never want to be measured by whether a project is “on-time and on-budget” because I don’t actually control either. So, as the PM, what do I control? I control the commitment management process of setting, managing, and delivering on expectations.

Throughout the life of the project, the successful PM will be engaging stakeholders in the commitment management process to proactively maintain alignment of scope, time, and costs commitments.

Setting Expectations

You can’t control where you’re going if you don’t know where you are starting from.
Of the three steps in commitment management, setting expectations is the most important. Often when a PM is assigned to a project, stakeholders have already formed expectations about project scope, time, and cost. In the normal process of determining what is feasible, the successful PM will identify those pre-set expectations and discover which “pre-set” expectations will need to be negotiated and with whom.

How can a PM deliver on expectations when they don’t know what the expectations are? The answer is, of course, “they can’t.” A PM may get lucky, but those odds are similar to winning the lottery. One way successful PMs identify those “pre-set” expectations is to create a matrix of stakeholders and capture their expectations, then review the matrix with their primary stakeholders to ensure awareness and alignment on expectations.

When collecting stakeholder expectations about the project, the successful PM will also capture what stakeholders want to see once the project is done, aka the “acceptance criteria.” If acceptance criteria are not established at the beginning of the expectation-setting process, later on it may be impossible for everyone to agree where the goal posts are supposed to be.

The setting of expectations helps the PM align the project tactics with product strategy and gives meaning and value to those tactics. But expectations are not limited to your product sponsors and associated stakeholders. Project team members have expectations too that are just as important. Typically they expect to know who is responsible for certain roles, what level of self-guidance their team will have, how to identify and address risks and issues, and the list goes on. The PM needs to understand and actively clarify team members’ expectations (and if they are not in alignment, the PM should consider changing the project codename to “Chaos”).

The commitments I make as PM represent the aggregate of commitments that my team members make. To be a successful PM, I also need to manage commitment within my team, including setting the expectation with my team that I will do my best to manage the commitments we make with stakeholders. My inability to do so will impact my team members in various ways: lost weekends and evenings, rework, perceptions of performance, reputations, and bonuses.

If PMs intend to hold their team members accountable for their performance on the project, they must set clear expectations with each member. Conversely, it is incumbent on the PM to identify all the expectations, realistic or not, that stakeholders have on each team member.

Managing Expectations

Managing expectations when projects are in mid-flight and at-risk of being knocked sideways is the most difficult part of project management. This is the make or break phase of a project and where true leaders make their presence known.

During the project, the PM’s role is to manage expectations by providing evidence of attainment of scope and measurements of schedule and budget. If a PM discovers during the project that commitments cannot be met with the existing plan, then the PM needs to work with the sponsor and stakeholders to adjust those expectations. The PM does this through measurement, communication, evidence, and analysis on how to recover from the variance or accept new scope, time, and/or cost baselines.

While setting expectations is the most important phase of commitment management, managing expectations is the most difficult. I say this because managing expectations requires the constant measurement of performance, controlling scope and requirements, communications, the detection and triage of change, keeping the team motivated and on track, and then repeating all of this again on Tuesday.

Delivering on Expectations

Aren’t we all just in search of recognition and acceptance? And by extension, aren’t we hoping for the same for our projects?

In order to validate “doneness” and to ensure customer acceptance of the end-product of the project, the successful PM should proactively obtain sign-off from identified stakeholders that the project has delivered on all expectations. To justify the claim of “complete,” the PM should present project performance evidence to demonstrate completeness in addition to the end-product itself. This evidence can come in the form of test results, product documentation, sign-offs from project team members, and approvals from other stakeholders.

To build consensus that a project is complete, the successful PM will not wait until the project tasks are complete and the end-product is delivered. Instead the PM should start involving the stakeholders who will be signing-off on the project in the development and testing of the product as often as is feasible. This helps the successful PM achieve both the Managing and Delivering phases of Commitment Management and it is better for the project overall.

My favorite evidence of completeness is a printed version or screenshot of the final product (e.g., home page of a web site, front cover of a manual, a “future state” process map) that all the team members and primary stakeholders physically sign. Sure, it provides a “suitable for framing, makes a great gift” item, and that’s the point. Once signed and framed, it should hang in a public place to illustrate not only consensus of completeness, but also demonstrate team member and stakeholder approval and hopefully build a sense of connection and pride.

Case in Point

Throughout the Why Projects Succeed series we’ll discuss key elements that make or break projects. However, as most of us have discovered, like it or not success is essentially a perception.

To illustrate: I was once assigned to take over at the midpoint a 12-month, $1.3M project that ultimately was delivered on time and was 0.24% over budget (not a typo…1/4th of a percentage over budget). We delivered a key set of functionality that was critical to meeting the company’s annual objectives. Huge success, right? Well, if all you measured was functionality, cost, and schedule indicators, then it’s time to print the t-shirts and have a party. However, behind the curtain, things could not be more opposite.

The original approved budget was 63% of the final cost, not because that was what the team estimated but because that is what the team had been squeezed into agreeing to. (Legalese small print: By requesting and receiving approval for an additional $300K, our cost baseline changed, thus the .24% over budget metric.) When the available performance metrics did not meet the detail that the sponsors wanted to see, the previous PM responded by attempting to generate those metrics, which resulted in micromanaging the team in the collection of performance metrics. Due to over-commitments of scope compared to schedule, overtime was 15% of the total hours for the entire project. Morale amongst the project team was extremely low. Several team members said that they would walk if they find themselves on a similar project in the future. OK, stop the t-shirt presses! That’s all the hallmarks of a failed project. What happened?

Clearly, expectations were not properly set at the beginning of the project for what was achievable given scope and time. Additionally, expectations on how performance metrics would be gathered and presented were not set or managed well. Lastly, once morale was identified as a major issue, sponsors and stakeholders were not engaged to address and correct the root causes of dissatisfaction. Team members rightly have the expectation that management, and specifically Project Managers, will take care of them. In this case that expectation was not fulfilled.


If you measure project success solely by whether it is on on-time and on-budget then, as Mr. Welch tells us, you will see behaviors that focus on those metrics. But you may also wind up with stakeholders and sponsors who aren’t shy about telling anyone who will listen that your “on-time, on-budget” project was a failure. The successful PM knows that success is in the eye of the “stakeholder.” Success is a perception, and perceptions are based on expectations. The successful PM must actively set, manage, and deliver on expectations in order to deliver a successful project.

What Do You Think?

Would love to hear what you think about the Commitment Management process and its significance in managing successful projects. Additionally, if you have any tips or tricks you want to share, please join the conversation and post a comment.

Reprinted with permission from Slalom Consulting – © 2011 Slalom Consulting

Roger Kastner is a Business Architect with Slalom Consulting who is passionate about raising the caliber of project leadership within organizations to maximize the value of projects. You can read more articles from the series on “Why Projects Succeed” here.

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