Clarifying expectations – when specifics matter

Misaligned expectations are often an underlying cause of error, tension, and conflict. This is true for nonprofit organisations as much as for any business entity (and family and friendship groups for that matter).

When we expect one thing, and something else happens instead, many of us experience emotional responses ranging from delight and surprise, through disappointment and frustration, to anger. To the extent that such misaligned expectations arise due to a lack of clarity in the situation, we can look to the form and expression of the specifications involved as a key causal factor.

Both objective and subjective responses are likely to be offered when outcomes do not align with expectations – so great care needs to be exercised to ensure that emotions do not gain the upper hand.

There can be many different reasons for targets and expectations not being met. Sometimes, stretch targets were adopted that were beyond the organisation’s capacity to achieve. Alternatively, there were too many competing priorities, and something had to give. External developments may have intervened to distract key players so that they were not able to progress the action required to achieve desired outcomes. Performance issues may also be involved.

Goal Setting Expectations

We know that the first of the qualities sought when setting SMART goals, whether for strategic or operational purposes, is to be specific. If you have been specific when setting your goals, then you were framing ‘outcome specifications‘.

Of course, there are also specifications involved when determining the metrics that will help you to know whether your goal was achieved, and if so, how well. You could call these evaluations or ‘test specifications‘ if you like.

Specifications for all situations

Most of us are not engineers or architects, but these professions can teach us a thing or two about the benefits of using specifications to clarify requirements and deliverables. The many different types of specifications (some of which are illustrated in the chart below) encompass every field of human endeavour.

Beyond the use of goal specifications in nonprofit strategy papers, directors may also make use of them when considering questions of quality in operational areas. The three major types of parameters (guardrails and guiderails) used in measuring and controlling operations are summarised in the chart below, with specifications identified as essential for governance and management of quality.

Specification tools of various kinds are used in a range of focal areas, some of which are suggested in the table which follows. While some of the focal areas listed are likely to be of greater interest to managers, the majority are identified with governance matters.

Specification Principles

Specifications look quite different, depending on the field and activity you are engaged in, however, there are some common elements and principles that may be helpful to nonprofit directors and managers. In-house specifications should reflect your organisation’s best practices, be consistent with current codes and standards, and be well understood by staff, contractors, and volunteers (as appropriate).

As highlighted in the chart below, specifications can be unhelpful when they are vague or incomplete (under spec), or overly detailed or inconsistent (over spec). Our engineer friends recommend ‘fit for purpose’ specifications that are clear, correct, concise, consistent, complete, and coordinated. You don’t need to be an engineer to seek these qualities in any specification you may be considering.

RFP and Tender Specifications

Nonprofit boards need to conduct Requests for Proposals and Tenders from time to time. When writing the specifications for products or services (unlike building or process specifications) it is essential to focus on the outcome to be achieved rather than how it is to be done (other than in compliance with certain laws and standards). This will encourage innovative responses and value for money.

Your organisation’s finance, audit and risk committee may find guidance on what procurement specifications should include and exclude helpful in their work overseeing probity and value for money matters.

Project Specifications

Nonprofit directors and managers commonly encounter specifications when reviewing project briefs. Needs and requirements analyses are used to identify deliverables, along with any conditions that must be met in the process. These are captured in project specifications, which directors will usually think of in terms of strategic goals and risk controls.

The development of project specifications is an early stage activity in project management, as suggested in the chart below.

Various steps are involved in the project specification stage, and these are summarised in the following graphic.

Caution – keep your worthy purpose in focus

The parable of the bricklayers is a well-known story reminding us of the importance of having a worthy purpose.

As much as quality outcomes depend on clear specifications, and an eye for detail in working to standards and requirements, meaningful work and effective engagement depend on team members sharing a worthy purpose. When that purpose is expressed as an inspiring vision of a desired future state, the importance of close attention to specifications can be better appreciated.

Instead of complying with specifications because those are the rules, compliance is recognised as a necessary means to achieve the worthy ends the organisation aspires to.

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