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Retroactive Expectations And The Law Of Seeing Things

Retroactive Expectations and the Law of Seeing Things

Retroactive Expectations and the Law of Seeing Things in Project Management

Guest Column by “Dr. Z,” Zachary Brooks, PhD


The manager couldn’t believe what he was seeing. This is not what he had in mind when he decided to task one of his best employees to revamp the online training tool for the company. How could the employee had messed this up so badly? The manager and the employee had a couple of meetings and the manager had trusted the employee to bring back a finished product to plug back into the company’s system.

This was not it. This is a disaster.

The manager texted, called, then emailed the employee. She returned his text, call, and email within 30 minutes, but it seemed like days. She was confused. What happened?

When the Manager and the Employee finally met, they opened up the website that the employee had built based on the conversations she had with the manager and his team and based on the experience she had doing previous projects.

She thought to herself, they had nothing and now they have something.

The manager thought to himself, this is worse than nothing.

Moral of the Story

The short story above illustrates what I call Retroactive Expectations and The Law of Seeing Things when it comes to online design, project management, and working with employees.

When an organization recognizes a need, often their initial statement is “we need to do something.” They don’t necessarily know how something will look but when they reach out to a third-party for assistance, they infuse hope into the person who will deliver exactly the something the organization is looking for and what it needs.

When the project is delivered, however, the new reality of disappointment is retroactively applied to an earlier point in time. This is not at all what I was imagining. And this disappointment is felt equally by the manager and the employee.

The manager legitimately knows that the current version of the project doesn’t equal his expectations. The problem is that the manager has defined his problem in negative terms. He has defined it as something he doesn’t want and now when presented with something he sees it as faulty.

The employee is equally frustrated because she knows she moved the project forward in some way and she wants to be recognized for her efforts of producing something but instead she is confronted with The Law of Seeing Things in online design, project management, and working with employees.

If she is new, she can be forgiven for not understanding how invested people are with their projects and how when presented with the first version of their new project how disappointed they can become.

Both the manager and the employee should know about the Retroactive Expectations and the Law of Seeing Things in Project Management. The manager has to appreciate the iterative process of improving processes for his organization and how a third-party employee brings important new insights to the table that will change his version, no matter how murky. The employee needs to know that the manager will likely be disappointed with her first draft as he needs the visual to help him think about what he ultimately wants. Knowing about the Retroactive Expectations and the Law of Seeing Things in Project Management at the outset can lead to a reduction of stress and improved outcome for both parties.


Tips for Avoiding the troubles of Retroactive Expectations


  1. Know that if you task an employee or hire a third-party to complete a task, it will not be designed exactly as you imagined it. They cannot be expected to be your muse and an extension of your thoughts. If you can do the task yourself and know you may be frustrated no matter the output, maybe you should do it yourself.
  2. Understand that processes are iterative. That is the first draft is not the final project. It is a new starting point and not an end point.
  3. Create check-in times and deadlines with the person tasked to work on the project but reduce your feedback during each meeting. You and the employee or consultant are more likely to be on the same page with three pieces of feedback versus ten.
  4. Enjoy the process as it unfolds. After all, someone else has built on your idea and likely added to it in ways you could not have imagined.


  1. Know that when someone has come to you to help them and then trusted you enough to work on a project, the project realize that the manager is both a) sees this is a very important project and b) is very frustrated by the project. The most important things to us are often the most frustrating so accept the challenge and honor the person giving it to you.
  2. Understand that the manager may be frustrated with the first version. Assure him or her that it is the first draft is not the final project. It is a new starting point and not an end point.
  3. Communicate frequently with the manager on the progress of the project. However, you should optimize what you communicate with the manager. Share with the person the elements you feel are the best and you comfortable modifying.
  4. Be transparent with yourself and the manager about the progress. The phrase under promise and over deliver comes to mind. While you don’t want to limit what you do, you also want to make sure you and the manager are tuned into each other’s expectations and realities.


Bio. Zachary S. Brooks earned his PhD in Second Language Acquisition with concentrations in cognitive science and management at the University of Arizona. He has worked at two Silicon Valley startups (E*Trade and VeriSign), had a Hollywood acting career (10 credits on, and currently has eight podcast programs with over 100 episodes: Dr. Z Podcasts,

## Find more about Zachary Brooks, PhD and his podcasts at


Zachary S. Brooks, PhD

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