At the precipice of a new project, is it possible to mitigate most of the predicted risks? Just how far into the future can you accurately plan ahead? Failure to visualize the divergent possible outcomes of a project will reduce your chance of starting off on the right foot. Not being able to visualize success will impact your ability to inspire your team. And not being able to visualize failure will diminish your team’s confidence.
Before you start your next project, you should know what you’re getting yourself into by conducting a sort of “pre-mortem.” Author Ben Casnocha spent 10,000 hours with LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman (whom he later co-wrote The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age with), and discovered that when you align around three simple scenarios, as a team, you can calibrate your expectations and invest accordingly.

Upside: If everything clicks and you even get a bit lucky, what’s the likely outcome of your project? World domination? A successful product launch? A bestselling book? If this “upside” case isn’t very compelling, you might not want to embark on the project in the first place—or at least you might calibrate the level of investment. The upside case for what you’re working on needs to be exciting.
Regular: If things go fine but not great, what’s the ‘regular’ scenario look like? To use a golf metaphor, if you hit the fairway – not the green, not the rough, just the fairway – with your effort, what happens?
Downside: If your project stalls or goes sideways, what’s the downside case look like? Is it mortal – i.e., are you dead (reputation-wise, financially, etc.)? Or is the downside quite survivable?

Set expectations early, and then start your actual project. Even with limited information at the outset, you can still manage expectations as you go. Brett Harned of Team Gannt suggests reviewing expectations on a regular basis. Harned recommends creating shared to-do lists, delivering possible bad news early, and asking clarifying questions:

What it comes down to is that you must communicate early and often, document conversations, and continuously follow-up with the collective project team in order to keep things straight. If you passively let things work out on their own, you’ll not only kill your project, you’ll lose the trust and respect of your team. So be proactive in setting expectations and keep an open line of communication, and you’ll find that sparkly unicorn.

Starting a new project requires a leap of faith. Between where you and your team presently stand and the expected outcome of the project, there exist multiple questions and variables. Your team’s ability to traverse that uncertain bulk, to stay focused, and to overcome any obstacles will ultimately determine whether or not your project will be successful. Ensuring you’re calibrating expectations with the upside, regular, and downside scenarios will help you visualize the road ahead as far as possible. You can never be too prepared, especially when you’re managing the expectations of a team. In the wise words of Sun Tzu, “The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.”


This post was originally published on 99U.