One of the biggest non-technical issues affecting most corporate IT departments is also an easy one to manage. When it comes to dealing with end users, everyone has to be on the same page and know what can be done – and when. And there's the key: managing end users' expectations. It sounds simple, but this can usually go a long way toward making things easier when dealing with the people who use a set of applications on a day-to-day basis.
IT departments that fail at this one thing can really suffer, as problems fester into resentment toward the department. That makes projects harder for everyone. (For more advice on support, see 10 Tips for Providing Better IT Support.)
If you've worked in IT for a while, you can probably think of projects, tickets and roll-outs where the IT department is either blamed for the project, ticket or roll-out being late, not what was requested at the beginning, or just plain not good enough. When the expectations of the end-user community (EUC) are way out of line with the concept of reality – or even just a little skewed – their criticism can be an unwelcome distraction.
Even simple things like a new user account can cause friction between departments – or even a huge inter-office feud. The best way to avoid this is to create realistic expectations, and meet them each and every time. That means IT needs to tell staff how long a project will take and what to expect when it's finished. Whether in a five-person office or a multinational conglomerate, inform those who will be using IT resources about what the IT department can and cannot do. In most cases, issues don't stem from what IT accomplishes, but from what other employees believe it should be able to do. Departments that can avoid that kind of disconnect will go a long way toward avoiding the "blame IT" syndrome.
One of the best ways to begin managing the expectations of an end-user community is to implement a policy of providing service-level agreements (SLAs) for all services. Many people in the technical fields associate SLAs with external vendors, but that same mentality can be used for internal customers as well – and should be. This will provide end users with a framework of what to expect when requesting services and keep everyone, if not on the same page, at least on the same chapter.
Most trouble-ticket software packages have modules for setting up SLAs. If you happen to already have SLAs for your internal customers then congratulations, your department is already on the right track.
Now that you have laid the foundation, you have to keep up the communication. For both long-term projects and short ones it remains imperative to keep all parties in the loop about both progress and setbacks. Expectations can go either way in a heartbeat and as happy you may have been at the project launch, if you miss the timeline you set, things can quickly deteriorate. Very few things will destroy the goodwill IT has worked to achieve faster than miscommunication and dropped deadlines.
Oh, and if you do miss a deadline, you'd better clearly communicate a swift and reasonable reason for the delay. Keeping the lines of communication open will help avoid ruffling feathers and ensure that everyone is feeling better about how a project is coming along. If your end users do not hear from you, they may assume that everything is hunky dory. If this turns out to not be the case, you will have failed them in a big way by failing to meet their expectations.
Once you have achieved harmony with your end-user community and everyone is working together, you may think you've achieved workplace nirvana. Not so fast. Suddenly the email server or (insert relevant outage here) suffers a catastrophic failure of some sort and you have a mission critical system down. This is another chance to manage your end users' expectations to minimize distraction to help resolve the outage quickly and without additional issues.
If you fail to do this, you will be inundated with outage reports and the inevitable "How long will it be down?" questions. This will only succeed in fanning the flames of frustration.
Here's what to do: When an outage occurs, you need to have more than one method of getting the word out. That message should also be consistent and honest. So, if you say the outage will be resolved in two hours, your end users will expect it to be completed in that time frame. This means you should avoid making optimistic estimates to make people happy. Plus, if the problem is affecting your end users now, make fixing it a priority. When that outage has been resolved in a timely manner, you and your team can return to your regularly scheduled programming.
The Key to Smooth Project Management
Bad blood often develops toward departments – and subsequently within them. This is most common when an IT department and its end users fail to communicate and when the IT department fails to manage and meet those end users' expectations. An IT project manager who can master the art of setting and meeting expectations won't have to worry about going to great lengths to keep end users happy – that will come naturally. (Want to climb the IT career ladder? Read How to Become an IT Director: Tips from the Top.)