When You Assume…

Dr. K blog

Project management has been in existence for more than 50 years. Yet in all that time, there is still a critical mistake that we repeat over and over again: failure to revalidate the project’s assumptions.

Project managers are often brought on board after the project has been approved and the assumptions and constraints have been documented in the project charter. The charter is then handed to the project manager and the project manager may mistakenly believe that the assumptions are correct and still valid.

The problem is that the project could have been approved months ago and was just waiting for funding to be approved. While sitting on the back burner, the assumptions for the project may have changed significantly to the point where the project should no longer be considered or should be redirected toward different objectives. In either case, completing a project based on faulty assumptions could result in a project that provides no business value.

We provide project managers with software to assist in tracking time, cost, scope, risk and many other project functions. But we don’t provide them with the necessary tools to track the validity of the assumptions. For most project managers (assuming that they do this at all) it is a manual process. Input from the project sponsor is essential and there is a valid argument that this should be part of the sponsor’s job description.

In any case, assumptions can and do change. Examples of assumptions that are likely to change over the duration of a project, especially on a long-term project, might include:

  • The cost of borrowing money and financing the project will remain fixed
  • The procurement costs will not increase
  • The breakthrough in technology will take place as scheduled
  • The resources with the necessary skills will be available when needed
  • The marketplace will readily accept the product
  • Our competitors will not catch up to us
  • The risks are low and can be easily mitigated
  • The political environment in the host country will not change

The problem with faulty assumptions is that they can lead to faulty conclusions, bad results and unhappy customers. The best defense against poor assumptions is good preparation at project initiation, including the development of risk mitigation strategies. One possible way to do this is with a validation checklist, as shown in Exhibit 1.

CHECKLIST FOR VALIDATING ASSUMPTIONS

YES

NO

Assumption is outside of the control of the project
Assumption is outside of the control of the stakeholder(s)
The assumption can be validated as correct
Changes in the assumption can be controlled
The assumed condition is not fatal
The probability of the assumption holding true is clear
The consequences of the assumption pose a serious risk to the project
Unfavorable changes in the assumption can be fatal to the project

Exhibit 1: Assumption Validation Checklist

It may seem futile to track the assumptions as closely as we track time, cost and scope. But at a minimum, assumptions should be revalidated prior to each gate review meeting. This may help eliminate unfavorable surprises downstream.

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