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Communicate, Communicate, and Communicate

You can't manage expectations without communication. In fact, you can't manage anything without communication. If some communication is good, more is better. The customer continually needs to know about your progress on their problems, what you'll deliver, and what you need. Don't let daily pressures crowd out the continuing dialogue that's essential for success.

And don't confuse customer contracts with communication. Having a signed requirements document and an approved budget is only the beginning of communication, not the end. Never let your team wander off into a vacuum to "do their thing" and deliver when the product is ready. Insist on frequent short deliverables from your team, and insist on customer involvement at each delivery, however small. Without continuing discussions, IT inevitably diverges from customer wishes and leads to the traditional IT complaint, "We gave them just what they asked for, but it wasn't what they wanted!"

Communication forces alignment at two levels—the IT professionals with their customers, and, just as important, the customers with themselves. Customers almost never have a clear idea of the details of what they want, and if they get what they asked for, they'll change their minds.

As much as IT managers complain about indecisive and demanding customers, there are sound reasons for this behavior. First, people almost always interpret their needs in terms of what they know. They're often best able to define their needs in terms of what they don't like rather than what they do like. The old saying, "I'll know it when I see it," is literally true.

It would appear that the best approach to satisfying the customer is to allow customers to shop for the best answer. But IT managers are co-developing new systems and introducing new technologies, and don't have the time or budget to allow their customers to see the final product, critique it, and then discard what they don't like. This process is a recipe for delay, budget overruns, and frustration. By negotiating continually over the features, functions, and priorities and acceptance of a new system, the IT manager can manage customer expectations to ensure timely completion within budget.

Communication is the biggest problem within IT today. IT simply doesn't know how to communicate effectively with their customers, nor do they communicate effectively within their own organization. Communication is not highly regarded as a priority, and effective communication takes time!

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