Be Clear About Your Assumptions

Assumptions: we all make them.  Some times stated. Sometimes implicit. Occasionally, utterly unaware that we made an assumption. They are in all projects and can be found in all project planning decisions. If we don’t make assumptions we can’t plan – uncertainty will get in our way.

The future is by definition uncertain. However we can often follow what “normal” means. However we must state what we mean by “normal” because that can change. The plot of  Downton Abbey shows how “normal” can change dramatically for one organisation (a fictional family and their extended household) over the period of a  some months. “Normal” for business and civil service organisations can change just as quickly and how people adjust can be almost as entertaining: especially if, unlike those at Downton, they seem completely unaware that their world has changed.

What isn’t entertaining is to discover that the assumptions your project used as a planning base have stopped being “normal”. Especially, if “normal” is held with the quality of certainty.  This could be true from big assumptions (there will not be a war that conscripts our young managers) to more detailed assumptions made about the requirements or products.

How big is a metre? In Europe, there is some considerable certainty about what that measurement means but look at how often it has changed http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Prototype_Meter  If you and I were working on a project without a standard metre ruler but we assumed a meter was a metre would it matter? I can almost guarantee that my wooden metre ruler changes a little between winter and summer or dry and damp conditions. Your metre ruler from a different manufacturer or made from a differnt material (metal) will behave differently. Sometimes those fractions will make a real difference and sometimes they won’t. Do our assumptions have some associated checks (a common calibration method) and balances (risk management actions to cope with  or tolerances)

A yard is even more complicated a matter http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yard Now for most things, a yard that I talk about is the yard you are talking about. But if we state the assumption we can re-examine it later: it pays to know where the sources of unclear plans or requirements could float to the service like sea-mines. Even assumptions about the meaning of terms can cause confusion and delay. If the requirement is for a “yard stick” do we mean a long ruler to measure a yard’s distance or a stick that is placed in the back yard (rear garden)? If we assume one but the requirement is for another, we will cause rework and delays.

What else have we assumed? All the team have a valid passport and the right to work were we plan to send them? Is the customer’s green is the same colour as the green paint we bought?  Assumptions can hide ambiguity and the discipline of being able to state your assumptions can show where more effort is needed to resolve ambiguity or uncertainty,  where risks may be hiding or is specific assumptions need to be monitored closely.

Project teams that fail often blame “unclear this or that” after the event – so clarity about assumptions may increase your chances of success.

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About 3triangles
Helping organisations make change happen in 3 key areas: strategic change, deliver tactical impacts, efficient and effective processes. All blog content (c) 2009 - 2012 Carol Long and Three Triangles Performance Ltd

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