Friday, March 30, 2012

Make your project assumptions visible

Have you ever been on a project and no problems surfaced to make your job difficult? If you answered yes, someone hid the problems from you. For those of us with actual project experience, problems with projects are inevitable. Without the ability to see into the future with perfect accuracy, no one can anticipate every obstacle and challenge that will arise from even the most well planned project. Here are a few common problem scenarios:

A task takes twice as long or costs three times as much as we planned. Why? Because the person who estimated that task had an assumption about their workload while estimating which turned out to be false.

The entire project runs into crisis because the research data was faulty. Or, the time to develop a solution was unrealistic. Key documents required to execute later steps in the project turn out to have poorer quality than assumed.

The effect of poor assumptions on project quality is usually negative. If deadlines and budget cannot be increased, the only remaining project variable - the scope and quality of the product - is reduced.

So how can you prevent these problems from affecting project or product quality? If you can’t hire someone to travel forwards in time and report back what happened, you are left with only one option: Good assumption management.

An assumption is something taken for granted, or accepted as true without proof.1
1 American Heritage College Dictionary. Third Edition Houghton Mifflin Company

During the project planning session, assumptions are rampant. When the project manager asks the team, “What are the tasks required to complete this deliverable?” the team members make assumptions like, “given this is that same type of project as I was in last year, given the regulations haven’t changed, and given our internal systems are the same as last time…” and then answer with a series of tasks.

When the project manager asks a team member, “How long will this task take?” the team member assumes, “given that I’m available 50% of my time to work on this project, and given that I am not on vacation or sick that week…” and then provides a duration.

Almost never are these assumptions stated out loud. And during all the talk surrounding the planning of the project, lots of assumptions are thrown around but rarely captured for posterity. When that part of the project goes into crisis, some people may remember the discussion, but few will remember the actual outcome of that discussion.

Below is a simple method to capture and apply assumptions to the Project Management Planning of any project.

Document your assumptions.

Before the project planning session gets under way, label a separate flipchart sheet with the title: “Issues/Risks/Assumptions.” The Project Manager must
alert all the attendees to the existence and purpose of this chart. When conversations start about certain facets of the project that are as yet unclear, capture an assumption. Write the assumption on the board in terms that everyone in the room can agree with for project planning purposes.  This will allow the project planning session to continue, and tasks that depend on that assumption will use it as a fact to estimate duration, cost, quality and scope. Later on, during the execution of the project, that assumption will be tested and may prove to be false. That’s OK! As long as that assumption was visible all along to the project decision-makers, and they signed off on it, you are covered.

But beyond protecting your reputation, you need to protect your project. If you find an assumption to be incorrect, you can determine what portions of the project might be based on that assumption and need adjustment

When people are hesitating about a certain task duration, cost, quality, etc., ask them what assumptions they are making in their heads before they give the estimate. Put it down on your list.

Test your assumptions.

Quite often, people will make poor assumptions. If the assumptions are visible, they will be challenged, and better assumptions will replace them. For instance, someone may be assuming that “No-one will get sick or take vacation during the entire year-long project” when making duration estimates. If this assumption is brought out into the open, it will be challenged and a potential project delay will be eliminated. It may be modified to read, “Project team members will only take 2 weeks of vacation and one week of sick time per year during the duration of this project.”

Other assumptions may stand during the project planning session but be challenged when the project plan is shown to the senior staff and other decision-makers. For this challenge to occur, the assumptions must be clearly visible as part of the project plan. I use a separate page on my project plans titled, “Issues/Risks/Assumptions.” I bring this page to management’s attention and ask them to verify the validity of the assumptions.

Attach assumptions to tasks.

Most assumptions will clearly be attached to one task, sometimes with several tasks using the same assumption. Before someone provides task duration, be sure that the correct assumption is attached to that task. This is easily accomplished by numbering the assumptions, then assigning that number to the appropriate task.

Carry assumptions to the MS-Project Gantt chart. (For those who use a Gantt chart as the primary project control tool)

Double-click on a task and use the notes tab to attach the assumptions to the MS-Project Gantt chart. Then open up the column called Indicators (<Insert> Indicators) so that the notes become clearly visible.

Highlight the risky assumptions.

Some assumptions carry a lot of risk and can severely affect the quality of both your project and product. Don’t allow these to become buried with the other 30 assumptions attached to the project. Highlight the task in red to make sure you are watching this assumption.

Manage the assumptions.

Sometimes there is an assumption trigger point. This is some event that proves or disproves the validity of your assumption. Make this a separate task on your Gantt chart and watch it carefully.

Proactively work to keep the assumptions from damaging your project. Your assumption may be that "Vendor A will be able to provide the required part in three weeks." If you are unsure of this assumption's validity, make some inquiries with Vendor B to act as an expensive, but quick, backup. If you don't, your project will lose time and money. See Figure One for an example of this.

Figure 1. Note that the backup plan has an assumption in the notes section and is highlighted in red for visibility. Calling ahead of time to see Vendor A’s capacity and backlog costs you nothing but allows you to move the part to the more expensive, but quicker, Vendor B. Your project loses $6,200 but finishes a week ahead of schedule. You would have lost $6,200 anyway in addition to three weeks if you didn’t check earlier.
Keep management informed.

Make assumption-testing a part of your regular status reports, especially the risky ones. If you see a trend that challenges the validity of one of your key assumptions, let everyone know. Remember that the cardinal sin of any Project Manager is to not communicate. It is your job to let senior management know as soon as there is a threat to your project that could affect cost, schedule, scope or quality. You are usually not empowered to allow your project to exceed any of these constraints (cost, schedule, scope, quality). Management set up these guardrails, and assumes that you are attending to them unless they hear otherwise from you. Tell them if your project is running into trouble so they can make the business decision of what to do, up to and including canceling your project. Canceling the project is an acceptable outcome if it means they can spend the money more wisely on another, more promising and profitable project.

Good assumption planning gives the project team and senior staff a preview to potential project problems. Good assumption management prevents poor assumptions from damaging your project and product quality. 

According to Eli Goldratt, author of “Critical Chain,” traditional scheduling (Plain Old Gantt Chart) removes visibility of the uncertainty surrounding estimates. However, assumptions should not be used as excuses for ducking responsibility, rather as control devices for detecting poor assumptions during planning and changing the way the task will be done, confirming good assumptions and raising confidence that the task will be done on time, and checking during the project to see if the assumption is coming true.  If it isn’t, change the approach to the task so that it is still delivered on time according to the original estimate.2


2 John Patton, President of Cadence Management Corporation

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