The BA and Expectation Setting

The expectation gap

Expectations can destroy a project.  If the stakeholders have inflated, unrealistic expectations, regardless of the projects final deliverable, it will be classified as a failure.  The stakeholders will be disappointed and the project team will be demoralized.  The BA must play the role of project realist and ground the stakeholders, tethering them to the true idea of what the final deliverable will be.  The BA is uniquely positioned to fulfill this “Expectation Enforcer” role because of their requirements gathering responsibilities.

In my current BA role implementing a SaaS product, this is particularly critical.  I am the face of the company and product following the successful sales cycle, where they have been courted and wooed with the promises of time and cost savings and a great user experience.  During the 2-day requirements gathering meeting which follows the sales to implementation hand-off, one of the big parts of my job is not just gathering functional requirements and building the stakeholder relationship, but also gradually and carefully grounding those expectations which are often floating in the stratosphere.

This is a very tricky, balancing act that requires the BA to use all the soft skills they have at their disposal.  The customer’s enthusiasm and eagerness needs to be maintained and nurtured. Kill that now and you set up a long and difficult road for the project.  But let them run free and unchecked and you have a bigger problem and will set up the project to fail.

Expectation setting must not mean be negative.  The chips and knocks to their ideal of the project must happen organically and naturally as the conversation develops and the requirements are gathered.  It is because of this that I feel the BA is perfectly suited to the “Expectation Enforcer”.

With each requirement elicited comes the opportunity to gauge what the customer is expecting.


The BA must address each and every one of these expectations.  Probing, questioning, and resetting the scene to approach the problem from a new perspective, just as you would for a functional requirement.  As this discussion progresses you must latch on to what to what is possible, and enthusiastically confirm that assertion.  As we all know, start with a positive before delivering less favorable news.  Then carefully bring the customer down out of the cloud, ensuring they understand the realities of the project.  Whether that be the customization limitations of an existing SaaS product, or the constraints of a new development project, where cost, time or scope may mean their expectation cannot be met.

As is so often the case, using visuals greatly assists the process.  Working with a SaaS product, I use the requirements meeting to run demos in a test database, and show exactly what it is they are getting at every turn.  This works really well at transferring the enthusiasm from the ideal in their head, to how it will actually look and work.

Often the functionality is as they expected, it just works in a different way to the mental model they had developed during the sales cycle.

If working on a new development project, the principles of Agile and User Centered Design will play a big part in reigning in the expectations also.  Delivering working products quickly, soliciting constant stakeholder feedback, testing and iterating, will make sure that the customer understands quickly the realities of the project.  If you are working on a waterfall project (I feel for you), showing prototypes and using whatever visuals you have to hand as the project develops will help fend off the “this isn’t what we expected” comment when the product is delivered.

I would love to hear other BA’s opinions on this topic, particularly those working on new development projects, and how you approach this critical issue.

Thanks as always for reading.

The BA and Expectation Setting