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Managing Expectations

Having recently completed work on an ?AV Best Practices? book, I still have the process of delivering AV systems on my mind.

Having recently completed work on an “AV Best Practices” book, I still have the process of delivering AV systems on my mind. I had a number of “Aha!” moments during the project — one of which concerned the real role of expectations in an AV project. I knew expectations were important, but I hadn't really thought about how central they truly are to every aspect of the process, from what the lighting consultant expects to receive from the AV consultant to the project's overall success or failure.

In an AV project, expectations are formed based on two basic elements of knowledge: the frame of reference coming into the experience and the current information developed once you get there. Each element contributes to expectations that form the basis for how the project is perceived — both from the “inside” view of the providers of the building and AV design and integration as well as from the “outside” view of the end-users.

Getting to this point

Our frame of reference is based on past experiences with AV and can have a big influence on expectations as we enter a project. For example, if an owner has only had small AV systems designed and installed by internal staff or small AV integration companies, he or she may not have appropriate expectations about how much the large, new system in his or her new building will cost — nor what it will take to design and install it.

The architect, building design consultants, and contractors also have their frames of reference. If the architect hasn't worked with an AV consultant before or has never designed a building with significant AV in it, he or she might not realize the need to call in the AV designer until work on the construction documents begins.

Another common expectation, especially in the ‘90s, was that the AV provider wouldn't perform adequately when working with building design and construction teams. While that wasn't the truth, it was a powerful preconception that many architects and owners had based on bad past experiences — when many AV providers were still learning to be part of the construction industry. The resulting attitude ranged from: “That's just the way it is, and it doesn't get any better” to “This stuff never works” to outright hostility from clients who expected a difficult AV integration experience. Thankfully, this has changed, but there's still work to be done.

Seeing the present

The other aspect of expectations — based on current information — is equally important. Current information comes from a slew of communications (or lack thereof) that occurs during the course of a project. We all come into a project with a frame of reference and apply it to the current information, asking questions such as: “Who's on the design team? Who's subcontracting to whom? What's the program for the building and AV systems? Who are all of the end-users?” And then there's the really important question: “What do the end-users need to be able to do with AV?”

For example, as end-users discuss their needs at the beginning of a project, they may make assumptions (which create expectations) about what the system will look like, how it will operate, and what documentation they should receive at the end of the process. This may not match what's in the contracted scope of work, or the outcome may be based on something other than what the users really needed.

Architects may not know what deliverables to expect from the AV designer or what their content should be. They may also assume there's a certain level of coordination happening when, in fact, it's not. This is how mismatched and unmet expectations can create failure.

How it's supposed to be

At some point, however, the owners and architects who kept pushing through bad experiences eventually came across a good one. Everything went smoothly, the design and construction team got all the information they needed, and the users were happy at the end of the process. When those formerly cynical individuals encountered this good experience, they could really appreciate it. They learned what questions to ask, what made the process better, and the crucial part — what to expect. Their expectations became more accurate and realistic. As a result, those expectations were met.

Meeting expectations, then, can be equivalent to success, especially if they're based on an accurate interpretation of the users' needs. One way to look at how expectations can make or break a project is to ask a few simple “what if” questions:

  • What if architects and owners expected to hire an AV designer for any project that included pro AV?
  • What if mechanical and electrical consultants expected to receive significant input from AV designers?
  • What if project design teams expected additional funds to be allocated for lighting, acoustics, conduit data, and power in AV-centered projects before the final building budgets were established?
  • What if general contractors expected the AV integrators to do the bulk of their contracted work after the spaces were clean and substantially complete?
  • What if owners expected how much the AV systems were actually going to cost?
  • What if the end-users expected their high-end AV space might not be ready for the big event a day or two after occupying the finished space?

If all of these expectations were real and successfully met, pro AV design and integration projects would run more smoothly with better success rates. And wouldn't it be great if all of the expectations matched the responsibilities of everyone involved with the project?

Expectations and risk reduction

As many good project managers know, project management actually involves a lot of expectations management. The interesting thing is that expectations management is also risk management, which influences the bottom line for businesses.

For an AV provider, if the owner or end-user isn't happy at the end of a job, that provider may not get another chance on the owner's next project. The end-users may not be happy because their expectations weren't met for a number of reasons. It could be because the design or installation was truly poor but based on the right idea. Or it could be that although the installation was beautifully executed, it was based on an inaccurate assessment of the user's needs. In either case, it could be considered a failure, and that's a financial risk.

The other aspect of financial risk is that if the project started out on inappropriate expectations (e.g., the AV technology can deal with bad acoustics), correcting those expectations and the problems they cause can be expensive (e.g., acoustical design efforts and related change orders).

Ultimately, it only takes one expectation based on a bad experience to create risk for everyone on a project, whether it's the owner, end-user, architect, general contractor, or AV service provider. Reducing that risk means understanding the AV design and integration process, aligning expectations among all of the project's participants, and if successful, increasing the end-user's satisfaction and everyone's bottom line.

Tim Cape is a contributing editor for Pro AV and the principal consultant for Atlanta-based technology consulting firm Technitect LLC. He's an instructor for the ICIA Audiovisual Design School and an active member of the consultant's councils for both ICIA and NSCA. Contact him attim@technitect.com.

 


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