Project assumptions: You Must Be a Project Manager if You Like Swiss Cheese

by Sylvie Edwards

A few weeks ago, a stakeholder at work was complaining about how we, the general, all-encompassing WE, the project manager could never be happy with simply doing anything and that everything requires documentation. The source of his complaint: why would we need to spend any time sitting and writing up a list of project assumptions in a log and on top of that maintaining that log throughout the project? My guess for his concern was that he had just come out of a working session for a new project coming on-line.

Project assumptions are just that, assumptions. According to him, time wasted that would be better utilized actually getting to the implementation of the project itself. Getting things done is much better than thinking about getting things done, from his perspective. You know the saying, he said to me with a giggle, assumptions make an “ass out of you and me.” You project managers sure like to waste time planning things!

What I have to disclose here is that this stakeholder is not a project manager but rather works in finance and looks for the bottom line in most of what he does. This is not a bad trait for a financial accountant but for a project manager, this can lead to catastrophic problems.

If you have been a project manager for a number of years, you would know by now (or I hope you do) have discovered that the line between a poorly planned project and a well-planned project is sometimes very thin and linked to, yes; your understanding of the future as you would like to see it unfold. A future that is mapped out through planning in a way that will be specific to this project at this point in time.

Since none of us are clairvoyant, the notion of being able to predict or take advantage of the future in project management is directly related to assumptions and proper risk management practices.

When contracting on risk management for clients, one of the first requests I have going into risk identification is to have a look at the assumptions/constraints log for the project. Assumptions are defined as items that we believe to be true, real, or certain in planning a project will often transfer on to risk as you work on developing a solid risk register. With that in mind, I believe that it stands as a case for spending a bit more time and thought around this process to ensure that we gain the full benefits of that work.

In talking to people, I always suggest to those not really adept at working in risk management, to begin with, the assumptions/constraints log and work upwards from there. That basis alone will provide a good foundation for any risk register. It will get your team to discuss these items more and provide easy information that might not have been discussed elsewhere. You can then support the rest of the process via interviews, focus groups, and discussions to solidify your information.

For this to work, you need to be conscious of documenting your assumptions as they are made, this is often the hardest part. Assumptions are often made in casual conversations, in a meeting amongst a whole itinerary of other items or even on the way to the elevator. Project managers have to be disciplined in jotting these down and ensuring that the team also does the same. Make it a process, part of your overall planning considerations, and you will be a winner for it.

Looking at it another way, assumptions are like the swiss cheese of project planning. In order to plan properly, you need as a PM the support of your team to understand how to deal with the holes by first knowing where they are in the project. We then can further deal with these holes as part and parcel of risk management. So, no surprises, no sudden moves just plain old good planning.

By the way, that stakeholder that I was talking about earlier who started this conversation when put in front of this suggestion looked at me as if I had three heads. I don’t truly think of this as bizarre or unusual but if you are to start looking at it this way you might be able with little effort to be ahead of the game a bit more. Who would not want to be the clairvoyant PM?


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