Project Management

8 assumptions that can derail projects and leaders

Assumptions should be built into all projects, though be careful--inaccurate assumptions can lead to wasted time and money and even project failures.

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Image: iStock/dolgachov

When building the business case for a project, assumptions must be included. Assumptions play a pivotal role in helping project teams and stakeholders set expectations and identify risk mitigation strategies, thus increasing the chances of meeting objectives.

The process of determining accurate assumptions can be time-consuming; this requires experience and a knowledge of the business needs, strengths, and weaknesses. If business constraints are unknown, it's impossible to effectively identify and document assumptions. It's prudent to get input from all stakeholders and key project team members to ensure all bases are covered.

If assumptions are inaccurate, the entire project is put in jeopardy, resulting in wasted time and business resources. If multiple assumptions are incorrect from the start, the desired high-level strategic goals are unlikely to be achievable. This can also impact other related projects.

It's critical to monitor assumptions throughout the project in case they turn out to be incorrect or change; if you don't, project failure becomes much more likely. Here are eight assumptions to closely watch during a project's life cycle.

SEE: Understand the relationship between assumptions and risks to manage these two related concepts

1: Business strategy-related assumptions are by far the most important. If projects are undertaken with specific business goals in mind, and those goals don't remain the top focus, it can be a disaster in the making.

2: Resource-level assumptions play heavily into the success or failure of a project because a large portion of project management is based on available and allocated resources. If throughout the project, certain resources are overextended or unavailable, it can compromise timelines, task dependencies, and ultimately the entire scope and goal.

Of equal importance is the level of contributions of all resources. Despite the fact that sufficient resources may be allocated, it is still possible to increase project risk if resource contributions are insufficient.

3: Technology-based assumptions outline the technologies (e.g., software or IT infrastructure) that are available to meet project goals. Technology resources may be internal or outsourced; be aware that outsourced resources may be impacted by the vendor's resource availability, capabilities, and internal policies and procedures. Be sure to identify any constraints that may exist internally as well as to conduct the necessary due diligence on outsourced technology service providers.

4: Time-based assumptions are impacted by resource availability, technology, quality factors, financial limitations, and other assumptions. Build in contingencies and buffers to address all of these assumptions.

5: Quality-specific assumptions play a vital role when companies are required to adhere to specifications in order to meet client expectations and/or safety guidelines. In such situations there is usually very little or even no room for error. Where safety is concerned, quality specifications will be a critical determinant of success.

6: Financial assumptions factor into any project; even if there is unlimited funding, sponsors and stakeholders will still be concerned about cost. Depending on the industry and project objectives, financial assumptions can become secondary, especially in niche, highly regulated, safety governed, or legally legislated projects.

SEE: Information Technology Cost/Benefit Calculator (Tech Pro Research)

7: Design- or development-based assumptions will typically outline the approach that needs to be taken to meet specific goals; these assumptions are greatly impacted by culture, mindset, capabilities, processes, and policies. These assumptions should not be based on personal biases or preferences, especially because this increases the chances of overlooking more relevant and beneficial design or development options.

8: Location and environmental assumptions outline where the work will be conducted and under which environmental conditions. If a project is initiated and an assumption is that work will be conducted at a particular location and that location changes, it can negatively impact other assumptions and even the entire project scope.

What to do if assumptions are inaccurate or change

If assumptions are inaccurate, these revelations need to be identified, documented, corrected, and communicated. It's better to slow things down and go back to the beginning to figure out what the assumptions were based on and why these assumptions were included. Taking this extra time allows you to revisit your thought process and make sure things are seen in the proper light.

If assumptions have changed, you need to assess precisely what changed, what the impact is to the project and outcomes, and what adjustments need to be made. As with inaccurate assumptions, documentation and communication are required. Timely, accurate corrective action is key.

The bottom line

Assumptions will be part of your project management—just make sure you're incorporating the right ones into your plans. Project work that is based on outdated or faulty assumptions wastes time and financial resources.

Also see

About Moira Alexander

Moira Alexander is the author of "LEAD or LAG: Linking Strategic Project Management & Thought Leadership" and Founder & President of Lead-Her-Ship Group. She's also a project management and IT freelance columnist for various publications, and a contr...

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