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How to meet client expectations: Product-based Project Planning

Debra Sunohara

What steps can we take every time we have a business interaction to give ourselves the best odds of success?  Identify and clarify your client’s expectations.

We don’t have to think too deeply about the deliverables – what is it that they expect to get from us – this is second nature for most of us.  “What do you need?  How many of them?  And by when?”

Unfortunately, the problems that inevitably follow are usually caused because we failed to establish the quality expectation up front.

When that product is a report, how do you know for certain what your client expects to have in hand when he or she envisions "quality"? Fall back on your ISO9000 certification?

Content, style, formatting, and reading-level are all subjective criteria if not explicitly defined.

Don’t drive nails with a sledgehammer

Let's face facts - when was the last time you saw a detailed Quality Management Plan (QMP) which adequately addressed the quality specifications of a written report?

Of course, for a small project, a full-fledged QMP would be overkill. Still, you need some sort of a plan to specify the quality expectations you need to meet.

Why not consider a Product Breakdown Structure (PBS)?

More Project Management?

Yes – more project management.  But, you don’t have to be a PMP or a master of the PMBOK to use the tools and concepts to your advantage. 

Those of us who have had some project management training are very familiar with the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS).  Translated from the language of the PMP, a WBS allows us to break the various activities of a project into smaller, more manageable bites.  These smaller pieces can then be more easily tracked, can be assigned to appropriate personnel, have resources allocated, and timelines attached to them.

Your PRINCE in Shining Armour

Developed as a process-oriented approach to project management within the Public Service of the UK, PRINCE2 utilizes the Product Breakdown Structure (PBS) in defining the hierarchy of a project breakdown.

The difference between a PBS and a WBS?

In its most simplistic form a WBS says, “do this activity, and do this, and do this – in this order and at this time.”  Most of us are all too familiar with the ubiquitous Gantt Chart:


In contrast, the PBS says, “make this thing, and make this, and make this – using these resources at these times, to this standard of quality.”

Product breakdown structure-557x344

A simple PBS that we are all familiar with is the Table of Contents found in any book.

The table is product based, and if you were to describe the individual sections (create product descriptions) this would include the quality specifications and acceptance criteria for each of them.

Benefits of Product-based Planning

Some of the benefits of product-based planning can include:

  • less ambiguity over expectations
  • user/client involvement in specifying requirements and quality expectations
  • identifying external products - products that are outside of the project scope but necessary for it to proceed
  • clear definition of review and approval responsibilities

Define the Products

Once you have created your PBS, you can move on to writing the product descriptions for those items identified in the structure. Following the PRINCE2 methodology, product descriptions should include:

  • Title
  • Purpose
  • Composition
  • Derivation
  • Format and presentation
  • Quality responsibilities
  • Quality criteria, quality tolerance, quality method and quality skills required

An Expectation of Quality

When it comes down to it, most customers expect quality, but do not necessarily want to pay for it.  So, when you build "quality" into your PBS, you don't have to add quality activity work packages to your WBS and the "cost of quality" is nicely camouflaged.

If you have had that client who said, "I’ll know what I want when I see it," then you know from experience that quality does cost.  The price of rework can be margin crushing.

The Challange

So the challenge when you start your next project is to take a moment to look at your WBS through a PRINCE2 lens. Before you start breaking it down or building it up, why not consider looking at it from a "product" perspective and creating a PBS?


Have you had any useful experiences, either good or bad, with building quality expectations into your client interactions?  We would love to hear about your approach to this difficult topic.



I’ll take a go at adding what will hopefully be something of relevance and use. First off, whether we’re working as a project manager (the context of your post), negotiating with provincial government partners or unions, aligning your team, or selling to a potential investor, LISTENING at the outset sets the stage for success or failure.

Of Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits for Highly Successful people,” the one that resonates for me is “Seek first to understand, then be understood.”

I lay no claim to be a great listener; I have lots of work to do on this front. With that said, how many of us truly not just listen but HEAR what is said in situations such as noted above?

Projects are very messy beasts. I managed or was actively involved in numerous large-scale projects over 25 plus years in the federal government, some of which spanned departments, involved provincial governments and the private sector. Nothing ever plays out as initially designed and planned. I have so many examples of where it was thought that everyone was on the same page at the outset, only to discover that certain people had developed their set of assumptions or were hit with internal shocks.

Witness some gargantuan projects in Canada and the U.S. which went off the rails, leading to massive cost overruns, and in some cases their failure to be completed. The guilty will remain nameless.

Why did this happen? Why does it continue to happen? How do we prevent or at least minimize future occurrences?

Perhaps I take a different, less technical approach, but project management is ALL about management and leadership: aligning your project team with your client’s needs and expectations, adapting to shocks and events as they occur, to produce in the end a quality product on-time and on-budget.

Getting it right at the start with the right people with the right understanding of the client’s expectations is vital.

By Jim Taggart on 2010/12/19

I couldn’t agree with you more, Jim. Communicating and validating expectations up-front during the planning stage is key to project success. People often focus on the more technical side of project management and project work, overlooking the importance of the “softer skills”. Clients may expect their project managers to have their PMP certification, but do they also rate their listening, communicating, facilitation and leadership skills? That said, the PBS/WBS and RACI matrix are practical communication and planning tools that can help keep the project team, client, sponsor and stakeholders on the same page.

By Debra on 2010/12/20

Thanks for this valuable post, Debra. Jim, your comment about LISTENING to the client at the front end (and throughout) is of course key. I’m also discovering that listening,then REFLECTING BACK to the client verbally and visually what I think they’ve said helps get us both closer to understanding and visualizing the end solution. It needs to be a dynamic loop of back-and-forth, particularly when the client doesn’t really know what they want. Using graphics in this dynamic loop speeds up this understanding process between me and the client. Drawing the PBS in pictures with the client in the room engages them and gets them involved in setting expectations clearly. I’m working on some sample graphic Table of Contents and will post in near future.

By Michelle Winkel on 2011/10/27

I am glad you found this post useful, Michelle and thank you for sharing your experiences as well. The old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is right on the mark when it comes to facilitating understanding, documenting and meeting client expectations.

By Debra on 2011/10/27

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Posted by Debra Sunohara
Posted on December 14, 2010

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Categories: lessons learned, process improvement, productivity, project management