PM Foundations – Project Assumptions

You have probably heard the saying, “Be careful when you assume something. It will end up making an Ass of U and ME.” From a project management perspective, assumptions are your friend. Assumptions are things that you believe to be true which may not be true. Assumptions help you clarify the thought process behind project plans. They also make it possible to get beyond seemingly impenetrable roadblocks during the planning process. Every project has a certain number of unknowns. If we waited until everything was known, a project would never get started.

 

Examples of Assumptions

  • Benefits associated with the project – When building a business case, you often need to make assumptions about what impact (hopefully positive) the project will have after it is completed. You can gather information (e.g., time studies) to refine the assumptions, but there will still be unknowns until the new processes and systems are in place and fully operational.
  • The way things will work within the product – You do not know exactly how something is going to work until you start to define and build it. This means that during the planning process you probably need to make some assumptions about what “it” is. These assumptions will impact the planned effort and duration of the project.
  • Things you can leverage to develop the product – Often times you are not starting from scratch. There are assets from previous efforts that can be reused, but you may not know exactly to what extent. Another good example of when to create an assumption.
  • Resources you will use to build the product – The number and types of resources will definitely have an impact on the timing and quality of your efforts. At the time you are planning the project you may or may not have all the exact resources in place – this includes the partners that you may hire to help with the effort. The assumptions in this area also include things like: Do I need to include time and costs for training? Do I have the facilities and computers available to support these resources?
  • Dependencies and lead times – What needs to be completed to start working on specific activities? If you wait for all the answers to these questions, you will never complete the project schedule.
  • Cost of developing the product – You may not have all of the exact cost estimates, but you need a project budget. Again, you can gather information (e.g., costs from similar projects) to refine the assumptions, but you may still have some unknowns associated with the cost / pricing for specific components of the effort. Insert an assumption.

When do you make assumptions?

  • Developing the business case – As I mentioned in the examples, during project initiation, when you are developing the justification for the project, there will be a ton of unknowns and assumptions help construct the initial business case for the project.
  • Developing the project plan – Throughout the planning process (defining the product and project scope, creating the project schedule, and developing the project budget) there will be things you will not know until you get to that point in the project.
  • Managing change – As project changes occur you may not know the exact impact of the change on the project or product. This is a good example of why assumptions must be managed throughout the project life cycle.
  • Managing risks – Just by the very nature of a risk, assessing the probability or impact of a risk may require some assumptions (e.g., if this risk occurs it will delay the project by 2 weeks). Try and get your mind wrapped around that one – unknowns related to the unknowns.

Best practices associated with assumptions

  • Do not use assumptions to CYA – be specific, and you must believe them to be true – I hate it when I run across assumptions like: We have enough resources to complete the project. –or- The client will be available to approve the deliverables. These assumptions are either added because of a CYA mentality or because they are believed to be untrue. Assumptions need to be specific and manageable, and most importantly you need to believe they are true at the time you identify them – if not, they are just “noise” in your project plans
  • Make sure they are documented – When you identify an assumption, document it, either in the project management plan or in a separate list of assumptions that are maintained and managed. Some assumptions seem innocent enough, but I have had plenty of times when we have had to revisit the rationale behind the plan because we did not document the assumptions well enough.
  • Assumptions need to be managed throughout the project life cycle – On an on-going basis you need to review and test your assumptions, particularly the ones that are critical to your plan (scope, timing, or cost). Assumptions can be deleted from the list as work is completed and they are OBE (overcome by events).
  • Focus on the key assumptions – Over time you tend to accumulate a lot of assumptions. Make sure that you have established a mechanism to focus on the critical assumptions (based upon the timing of the project activities, and the nature of the assumption).
  • Assumption management is tied to the risk management process – As discussed above, managing assumptions is directly tied to managing risks because they both relate to unknowns. It is a best practice to perform a quick review of key assumptions at the same time you are updating the risks. Think of it in the same way as changing the batteries in your smoke detector when you change your clocks for daylight savings time.
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About Steve Hart
Practice Manager responsible for project leadership & delivery services for the Cardinal Solutions Group in the RTP area. I am a PMP with 25 years of project management and technical leadership roles, have developed an extensive practical knowledge that spans a wide variety of industries, and project delivery approaches. As a practicing PMP, I am a member of the North Carolina PMI chapter. I am an avid sports fan, particularly the Miami RedHawks, Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns, and most recently the NC State Wolfpack.

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