Managing Expectations: The Key to Successful Infrastructure Projects


By Daren Petroski, PE

Design and construction of complex infrastructure can be challenging. Why are some projects perceived as successes, while others are seen as troubled? Clearly defined expectations, and the proactive management of those expectations along the way, usually leads to success. For example, addressing initial project challenges, such as the diverse interests of stakeholders, is a way to bring groups together who may have different needs, but share a common dependency on reliable modern infrastructure.

Understanding the interests and expectations of stakeholders requires clear communication and compromise. Consider the diverse interests of the many stakeholders – government agencies, elected officials, board members, code and regulatory officials, engineers, operators, funding agencies, and the general public. In most cases, it is unlikely that everyone will be satisfied without clear communication, compromise, and agreed upon expectations. Without clear expectations, there is the risk of the project collapsing under its own weight as requirements get added along the way in an effort to please everyone. Scope and schedule creep are the death knell to any project.

As project leaders, it is our responsibility to effectively manage project expectations. There are four-integral criterion in managing expectations:

  1. Set a clear vision of what success looks like
  2. Communicate clearly to the team when changes are required during the project
  3. Have tough conversations along the way, and be tenacious in tackling inevitable project pitfalls
  4. Celebrate successes, both big and small

Reflecting on 29 years of managing railroad infrastructure projects as both a construction contractor and design manager, there are a few notable case studies that illustrate the importance of managing expectations.

SEPTA’s Railworks – a project that rebuilt the railroad four-track mainline between the Philadelphia Center City Commuter Tunnel and Wayne Junction – was successful because of clearly defined expectations. At the commencement of the project, SEPTA determined the project schedule was the most critical success factor, and communicated this through the contracting process. This expectation established a clear vision for all stakeholders. The project was completed on time and under budget, and received local and national acclaim. The project’s success inspired the team to use lessons learned for future projects.

After the tragic terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, train service from New Jersey into lower Manhattan was halted. Flooding and structural damage to the PATH station and tunnels required significant effort to restore transit service. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) and PATH understood the traditional design-bid-build sequence of construction would take too long to restore service. As a result, a unique contracting method – modified design-build – contracted the design firm and installation contractors simultaneously. PANYNJ and PATH determined the project’s success would require effective communication from everyone involved, and facilitated collaboration between designers and contractors to develop innovative construction solutions so work could be started immediately. Effective communication created a rapid response to a very critical need, and enabled successful, quick service restoration.

Positive Train Control (PTC) was mandated in 2008 after numerous fatal train crashes propelled rail safety to the forefront. The mandate required PTC be installed and operational on all railroads by December 31st, 2015. SEPTA’s PTC initiative was successful because the team clearly understood its time-sensitive nature. These constraints facilitated efficient, effective decision-making. All stakeholders felt a sense of urgency and were on the same page from the start – meaning expectations were in place so the project could move forward quickly. Each project milestone was celebrated – energizing the project team to endeavor through the arduous project implementation process.

The criteria for managing project expectations – set a clear vision, communicate clearly, have tough conversations, celebrate successes – is a blueprint for project success. At Burns, our teams manage expectations through a 4-step process – the Burns Unique Customer Experience – to help us create an experience for our clients that focuses on meeting needs and expectations. The process is grounded in these four critical criteria, and addresses both project scope and interpersonal relationships in a way that improves the chances of delivering complex infrastructure projects successfully.

It takes discipline and persistence to manage the scope, schedule, and budget of complex infrastructure projects. Having a system to do so helps. Open, straight-forward communication and acknowledgment of success are key ingredients in managing expectations – it keeps stakeholders engaged and accountable, and helps the team stay focused on the project’s success.