I remember the exact moment I learned the importance of managing expectations in project management. It happened eleven years ago this month, I was managing a research outpost in the Canadian Arctic, and I wasn’t wearing enough layers at the time.
I was working in Resolute Bay, the second most northerly community in Canada (population: 230, and a logistics hub for Arctic research). The rest of my team was based on an uninhabited island accessible only by air, 165km away (almost the distance between Vancouver and Seattle). Among other things, I was responsible for coordinating the transportation of about one hundred people and thousands of pounds of cargo to and from the Arctic, and to and from the island.
As in any project, communication was key. The tools at my disposal: a crackly pay phone for calling South and a satellite phone with a spotty connection to the island. This was 2006, so pocket computers weren’t a thing yet. The Canadian Far North didn’t (and doesn’t) have a mobile network, anyway.
One night, two members of the research team arrived in Resolute from Ottawa. As we talked about their departure for the island, which was scheduled for the following morning, a new plan started to come together. Scheduling delays earlier in the day meant there were still a couple of cargo flights due to leave for the island later that night. It would take some re-shuffling, but I could get the researchers on one of those flights and save them the cost of a night’s hotel stay in Resolute, which would also help them hit the ground running with their fieldwork the following morning.
The Arctic is a place where plans need to be flexible but well thought out – the weather changes constantly, medical support is generally very far away, and: polar bears. Patience and forethought are critical for project managers in the North, so I thought through the new plan:
- Camp population at that point was still well below the maximum allowable.
- It was after dinner at camp but the researchers had already eaten during their flight North. Our cook would be able to accommodate two extra breakfasts without having to re-work the meal plan.
- Bumping a couple of fuel drums off the flight to make room for the researchers and their gear wouldn’t be a problem – even if weather closed in, camp had enough fuel for a couple of weeks.
The idea was safe, pragmatic, and would save the team money. At this point all I needed to do was communicate the plan to camp during our scheduled evening sat phone check-in.
Ground Control to Major Tom
Anger sounds a lot like static on a bad sat phone connection, but you can generally tell the difference by the amount of swearing.
Despite many attempts, I wasn’t able to connect with my team to relay the change in plans until after the two researchers arrived on the island. Sending passengers to or from the island unannounced was against protocol, and something that I had forgot. It didn’t matter that the plan was sound. What mattered was the team wasn’t given the opportunity to run through the same thought process that I had in order to vet the idea and arrive at similar conclusions. Instead, when put on the spot, my boss arrived at different conclusions, some of which, apparently, were anger-inducing.
I stayed outside on the gravel airstrip for a long while after my boss hung up, taking in the cold and silence. It was late and no one was around. I felt awful, and with my friends and family over three thousand kilometres away, I had never felt so alone. I could have used a thicker pair of long johns, too.
I wish I could say that I haven’t mishandled expectations on a project since then, but I have. Managing expectations is hard – whether deploying people or code, it requires pragmatism, creativity, empathy, and a thorough understanding of the rules. Perhaps more importantly, it requires reliable and regular communication with the right people at the right time.
Further requirements such as “the internet” may be project specific.