Successfully manage project assumptions – a how to guide

“Assumptions are the mother of all mistakes” Eugene Lewis

With sayings like this, it’s no wonder that the mere mention of the word ASSUMPTION has you running for the hills.

Whether in our personal lives or at work, we’ve all experienced the undesirable consequence that comes with an assumption gone wrong.  Think of that time when a colleague left the team and everyone assumed that their workload had been successfully handed over, but it turned out that there had been a huge mix-up and that report your valued client so desperately needs had fallen off the team’s radar. At it’s best, you might be able to remedy the situation with some overtime and some extra hands on deck, but at its worst your assumptions have set off a chain reaction akin to dominoes; if you’re behind schedule, so will your client and so on. 

But assumptions don’t always equal disaster. Quite the contrary, effectively managing your assumptions can be empowering, it can give you the confidence to progress in a project and the foresight to limit risk.

An assumption is defined as “a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof”.

So, how do you document the unknown?

When embarking on a new project, venture or business, there are a lot of unknowns and it is expected that assumptions will be made. Drawing out an assumptions list is integral to the planning process, but with so many factors to consider, where do you start?

Start with the five W’s: Who, What, Why, When, Where. It’s a classic and simple way of gathering basic information. Ask questions, ask as many as you can. Talking to the right colleagues can be a great way of gathering information and while some questions might sound silly, others could prove to be invaluable. How do you need to collect this information? That is also very important to keep in mind, as well as other factors such as finances, resources, procurement, customers & competition, marketing & communication, compliance, regulatory & legal, and even economic and political factors.

You should aim to end up with a list that looks something like this:

  • I assume that we can deliver our product to deadline.
  • I assume that the right talent and expertise will be available.
  • I assume that prices or market conditions will remain relatively stable.

But a good assumptions list will also provide further context and include details such as:

  • Date the assumption is recorded and the date you plan to review it
  • What the source of the assumption is
  • The basis for the assumption
  • The probability that the assumption will prove true

Get in the habit of reviewing your assumptions regularly, although how regularly really depends on the individual project. However, every time you get a new piece of information or your plans change, it pays to revisit your assumptions as soon as possible.

If your list is looking a little long, rest assured that there are almost always more assumptions at the beginning of a project, than at the end.

How to turn your assumptions into something that has practical value

Assumptions are very important to your process. It helps to think of them not as a list of unknowns, but as a tool or technique to consider things differently. The benefit of the process is that it can lead to discovering new requirements, risks, constraints or dependencies, all of which are tangible and can be managed accordingly.

Let’s start with the obvious. If you have the means to test an assumption, you would create a new requirement to test that assumption. The result can either eliminate the assumption, or perhaps create a new one. If you can act on an assumption, then your requirement would be to carry out that action. But what if you can’t test or act on it?

Another approach is to play out hypothetical scenarios. For example, if your assumption is based on something happening, you need to think of the consequences of it not happening. You want to shift from saying “I assume that” to asking, “what would happen if?”. If you find a solution to your hypothetical scenario, then you have the basis of a requirement.

If you play out a hypothetical scenario and you’re unable to draw out any requirements, but you discover a potential negative consequence to your assumption, then this will need to be handled as part of risk management (we will talk more about risk management in a future blog).

Assumptions, when managed carefully, can increase accuracy and efficiency in your projects, enhance the quality of products or services, inspire more confidence in your planning and preparation.

Have you ever assumed something and wished you had managed it differently? Share your story in the comments section below.

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