Are your Project Assumptions what they need to be.

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Project Assumptions

All projects start with some assumptions.  The assumptions will change during the life of a project.  The Project Assumptions you need to document control and monitor are those that support the successful completion of the project.   

So why any assumptions?

Projects cannot spend an endless phase confirming every fact and proving outcomes.  Projects should be considered and planned adequately.  But what is agreed as adequate will vary.  Take the example of pop-up hospitals during the Coronavirus pandemic.  Normal hospital building and commissioning take years.  But circumstance requires this to be done in weeks.  Solid assumption management is key to success.

Most of the change situations encountered by project managers are not as complex or urgent as pop up hospitals; but sensible handling of assumptions will help to ease the journey.

The process starts with documenting all items you have not confirmed are facts with your project team and stakeholders.  The project manager may believe these items recorded to be true, but others may have a different understanding.  Having formed your list of assumptions you then have a single agreed source data.  This log can be reviewed, adjusted or updated as the project progresses.

We all deal with assumptions all the time.  Simply getting up in the morning you assume that your bus or train will be on time, that your office will be open as normal,  that your work colleagues will be attending work or on holiday as planned.  It is not remarkable to expect all of these assumptions to be facts of everyday life.  Our usual reaction to daily assumptions being false is the start some sort of exception planning.  Like in the example of a train that is late; we will look at alternative means of transport. That might mean a later train or catching some other form of transport to get us to the office. The same basic process should be in place with projects, but this is only facilitated if we have a clear handle on the assumptions we are making for the project.

Types of Project Assumptions

When you first plan the project breaking things down into manageable chunks makes it easier to coordinate and control.  Organising your assumptions into different types of categories can allow you to split responsibilities.  You can more easily see items that are connected. Below is a list of common assumption classifications that might form the basis of categories that you would use in your own assumption management.

  • scope
  • resources
  • delivery
  • budget
  • time scale
  • methodology
  • technical material
  • design approval

In your project and depending on the project environment in which you work you may have slightly different categories. But regardless of the categories you use breaking down your assumptions into different types will allow people to focus on different aspects of the project.

Identifying Project Assumptions

In the early stages of the project when you are identifying project assumptions it is sensible to involve as many people as possible.  The core project team should certainly be involved. This wider audience allows the project to be considered from different points of view. The assumption types you have defined can then act as a catalyst to prompt the discovery and documentation of assumptions.

The output of this data-gathering exercise will inform the basis of your assumptions log.

The Project Assumptions Log

A project assumptions log has several different elements of data that it will record.  The following list is suggested as a reasonable structure for basic assumptions log

  • assumptions log number
  • initial date recorded
  • person suggesting assumption
  • category
  • name and description of assumption
  • owner or person who will action the assumption
  • due date
  • action date
  • current status (whether the assumption is open or closed)
  • actions or comments

Managing Assumptions

Having drawn up your assumption log that is just the start of the story. Simply documenting the assumptions and assigning names to them will not manage them. Assumptions need to be reviewed regularly with stakeholders, customers, sponsors and everyone affected by the project.  Well written project assumptions can be constantly reviewed, helping to maintain open unrestricted communication.

But to ensure you do have regular and consistent management of your assumptions you should set aside some time to review them at agreed intervals.  This process might form part of other risks and issues management review sessions.

It is unlikely that any of your assumptions will last unmodified throughout the life of the project.  Ideally, many of your assumptions can be closed and accepted as facts. Assumptions that cannot be resolved or that are incorrect are likely to become issues. These need to be handled through issue management. Other assumptions may highlight possible risks.

Performed well assumption management will allow you early visibility of project risks and issues helping to engender trust between the project and its customers. Anything that helps communication and engagement between those involved in the project has got to be a good thing. Taking better care of your assumption management will help your projects be more likely to succeed.

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