Friday 21 February 2014

Helping People Set Their Own Expectations Around Change

The importance of setting expectations about change came to mind when I got our son Charlie's phone repaired. I had scheduled the time to do so based on little information (hours of operation) and a lot of optimism. This won't take long, I thought.

I saw 22 people waiting to be served when I entered Samsung's walk-in service centre. My expectations and my mood immediately fell. 

In front of me was a touch screen that dispensed tickets indicating your place in line. It also displayed how many people were waiting and what type of service they needed.

As I waited, I noticed that each transaction took five to ten minutes to complete, except for pick ups that took less than five. A large tally board helped me update my wait time expectation based on how quickly the four service representatives moved through the line. My 40 minute wait didn't seem too long.

When I returned an hour later to pick up the phone, the number of waiting customers had grown to 28. Not great, but I quickly estimated my wait time, adjusted my expectations and settled in for a longer wait. 

My mood brightened when eight numbers were called with no owners  they didn't wait. Again, I recalibrated my waiting time. Next, a service representative called for all pick up orders. The three of us jumped out of our seats and within five minutes we were on our way. That didn't take long, I thought.

The parallels between my phone repair experience and large organizational changes are compelling. We need to provide people with the tools and knowledge to set realistic expectations about how they will need to change  without doing so, they will form first impressions and judge progress based on their own expectations and little information. 

Leaders need to share their expectations and the assumptions they are based on. Then they must provide updates (like the tally board) on what has changed so that people can recalibrate their expectations. Often, people interpret delays as failures when they are only prudent adjustments based on new information. Giving them the knowledge and tools to manage their expectations makes them active participants in the change process, which leads to greater commitment and engagement. It also builds their capabilities for the next time when something needs to be fixed.



  1. Phil, I love the parallels you've drawn between life and work here. We have a store in the UK called Argos that does a similar thing - you order a product from a catalogue, they find it upstairs in their warehouse while you wait for it to be delivered to you in store. A board gives you an estimated waiting time and you can see yourself getting higher up the waiting list. It really makes you feel valued as a customer.
    This Change Communications article also highlights the importance of managing expectations, but also considers the best way to communicate changes to staff. What tools would you recommend to manage expectations as part of organisational change?

    1. Hi Anna, it is good to hear that Argos uses a similar approach for managing customer expectations. Thank you for sharing Practicus’ checklist, which includes the important requirements of open, transparent, continuous, tested, and two-way communication.

      I have found that the best way to manage colleague expectations is to establish (and gain leadership agreement to) principles that support open, transparent, honest, and timely communication. Tools are helpful for developing specific communications aligned with them.

      An example of a principle is “Be clear on what we known and don’t known.” It could be expressed by a leader stating that some areas of implementation have not been worked out because they are new to the business. This would raise awareness that the transition will not be perfect and things will go wrong. The leader could also say that he or she needs everyone’s help to identify mistakes so that everyone could learn.

      I included a tool for communicating a change project delay in Change with Confidence. The shell is on my website ( Here are the questions included in the ‘Rationale for the Change’ section:

      - What are the reasons for the delay?
      - What are the risks of not delaying the project?
      - What are the benefits of delaying?
      - What have we learned from the delay, and how will this help us be successful?

      Thanks Anna for your comment. Phil

  2. Cracked iPhone screens are such a common problem, and as you say it is trying to fit the time into your busy schedule to get them fixed. I use a service where I live that actually picks up your phone via courier and then returns it to you. This means that there is no disruption to my working day.

    Clara Brooks @ Telco World

    1. Hi Clara, thank you for your comment. It is great to hear there are services that eliminate the disruption repairs can add to your day. Definitely something to check out for my next repair.