Assumptions – Power for Programs

The most powerful tool I use in leading transformational change programs is assumption management. Over the years, I have contracted with hundreds of project managers and most of the leading system integrators; none of them actively used assumptions. Maybe you are wondering what I am even talking about.

One place assumption management has been discussed is in regards to software development and defects by The Software Engineering Institute (SEI) at Carnegie Mellon. The article states that most of the defects discovered in existing systems were probably caused by invalid or changed assumptions. I believe major programs fail, or experience huge cost overruns , for the same reason. Many programs don’t even consider what assumptions are out there. Project management methodologies refer to assumptions and there are even a few companies that have based an offering on assumptions and risk management, but very few programs actively use assumption management as a communication and alignment tool throughout the project lifecycle.

First of all, what are assumptions? Merriam Webster says an assumption is a fact or statement (as a proposition, axiom, postulate, or notion) taken for granted. No matter how many people are involved at whatever stage of your program, everyone is making assumptions and taking for granted that something is in fact true. And I can guarantee you – assumptions are being made that are mutually exclusive; they conflict with each other. Why does that happen? Diversity is a key aspect of transformation teams, individuals are selected to provide broad perspectives and different points of view, so it is natural to see things differently and therefore assume different things. Assumptions are not right or wrong; they are just valid or invalid within the context and timeframe of your specific program. The power in that is that people don’t need to fear assumptions.

What do you do about assumptions, especially those that conflict? The first thing is to identify and document assumptions. If you don’t know what they are, at each stage of your program, you certainly can’t do anything about them. Depending on the stage and size of the program there are different ways to collect assumptions; interviews and questionnaires being the most common methods. I then use a matrix to categorize and de-duplicate the assumptions. The matrix provides the framework for the assumption validation meeting; where the cross functional team rapidly reviews every assumption for validity and risk potential (more on that in another blog) with special focus on conflicting assumptions. If conflicts cannot rapidly be resolved then they are set aside for deeper review and validation. You’ll find that a lot of other assumptions come out during the validation meeting allowing for an even deeper understanding of the program. This type of meeting is one of the most effective communication and alignment tools I’ve used; people are open, engaged and animated; they come away with a real sense of ownership because they are involved. All this increases the probability of success for your program.

Remember that assumptions are vulnerable; they can change or become invalid over time. That is why periodic review and refresh is essential for longer duration programs. I recommend stage gates and/or testing events as opportune times to collect, review and revalidate assumptions or incorporate assumptions as part of risk management. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Can you see the power of using assumption management in your programs?

 © Ellen Terwilliger 2012

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2 Responses to Assumptions – Power for Programs

  1. Pingback: Whatever can go wrong will go wrong – but you can be ready! « Manifest Vision Solutions

  2. Pingback: Is the fox watching the hen house on your program? « Manifest Vision Solutions

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