“Every project is conceived and developed based on a set of hypotheses, scenarios, or assumptions. Assumptions analysis is a tool that explores the validity of assumptions as they apply to a project. It identifies risks to the project from inaccuracy, inconsistency, or incompleteness of assumptions.” – A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Third Edition
Making assumptions is essential in project management. Assumptions simplify our understanding of the problem domain and allow us to move forward in the face of uncertainty. Without the ability to make assumptions, our projects would become paralyzed, unable to deliver the value for which they were created.
The success of our projects is largely determined by the quality of our assumptions. Therefore, by making assumptions on our projects, we are accepting some degree of risk that our assumptions could be wrong. Anytime we assume risk, we need to understand the probability the risk will be realized and it’s potential cost to our project. In other words, it is not enough to make assumptions, we need to understand the risks associated with those assumptions, and have a plan should they prove invalid.
Systematic and thorough validation of our project assumptions is the foundation of good project management.
Traditional project management (by that I mean project management as prescribed by the PMI, documented in the PMBOK, and certified through the PMP) makes one key assumption that no one seems to want to address. We routinely assume that our projects are predictable. We assume that with enough planning, with enough forethought, that we can come up with a strategy that will hold through the life of the project.
While I am certain there are some project domains where this assumption holds true, I am equally certain there are many domains where it does not. As project managers, we owe it to our stakeholders to thoroughly assess the likelihood that this assumption is valid and have a mitigation strategy in place if it is not.
If we operate in an environment where market needs change, requirements change, technologies change, and individual performance can vary exponentially; spending effort trying to create a static project plan is wishful thinking. It is just not good project management. We need a mitigation strategy, we need an alternate approach to deliver our projects in the face of overwhelming uncertainty.
Agile methods give us a way of handling projects when the assumptions about predictability just don’t hold. Agile methods give us a way of delivering the most project value, in the least amount of time, with the least investment possible. Agile methods represent a risk mitigation strategy for when our fundamental assumptions about project management no longer prove valid.
Let’s apply good project management technique, validate our assumptions, and work to mitigate our risks. Don’t be afraid to challenge the assumptions behind our understanding of PM best practice. The assumptions you fail to consider are the most likely to cause you problems in the end.