blueprint

How Hidden Assumptions Can Derail a Promising Project

Would you hire a contractor to renovate your home without a contract?

Probably not. 

You would want to see them lay out an approach, along with dates, details about their team,  and cost projections. 

After all, doing it without a contract would be like throwing your money away.

We wouldn’t build or renovate a building without a blueprint, so why do we start projects without setting up a solid foundation first?

My essential go-to tool is a Project Charter. 

I think of the charter as a way to facilitate great discussions between the sponsor, the team, and the stakeholders. That way, everyone starts the project on the same page, with clarity of purpose and an understanding of how they’ll execute the project.

The charter, developed through a series of discovery conversations, becomes the blueprint that guides the project team.

It allows us to frame out what we know and what we don’t know about the project.

And we use it to ask questions that clarify the stakeholder needs, lay out a clear direction, and create an environment where the team can be successful. 

The project charter’s real magic lies in that last bit:  It forces us to ask questions, get clarity, and confirm that everyone is on the same page about what we’re doing and why and how.

Without the Project Charter or a similar discovery process, projects often move forward even when the goals and objectives contain a great deal of ambiguity. And when that happens, things start to go wrong.

When there are ambiguities and unknowns, we generally fill in the blanks with our own assumptions. Or — even worse — the team makes its own assumptions without realizing that they are doing so.

And assumptions that have not been validated have the power to completely derail a project.

Sooner or later, assumptions will cause issues — and the later in the process those issues come to light, the more devastating the effects.

We backtrack, so our budget also slips. Sometimes we have to go all the way back to verifying our original intentions, outcomes, scope, and requirements.

Ultimately, we may fail to deliver the project at all.  Or we deliver a project that meets all the explicit specifications — but doesn’t address the intended goal, due to all the assumptions built into the planning process.

How to Uncover Assumptions and Keep Projects On Track

The best and simplest tool for uncovering assumptions and dissolving ambiguity is asking questions.  Lots and lots of questions.

For some reason, we are often reluctant to ask the questions that might bring us clarity. But for the sake of the business strategy and project success, clarity is essential:

✓ Clarity on outcomes

✓ Clarity on requirements

✓ Clarity on roles and responsibilities

✓ Clarity on the work effort and timelines   

That’s why the Project Charter is so helpful — it opens up space for asking these clarifying questions.

J.A. Dewar recommends asking the “journalism questions” (who, what, when, where, why and how) at the outset of a project — and adding “why” to each one.**

  • What do you need and why?
  • What problem are you hoping to solve and why?
  • How will you use this and why?
  • How will you build it and why?
  • Where will it be used and why?
  • Who will use it and how and why?
  • What is the impact of not doing this and why?
  • When do you need it and why?
  • Who will be impacted and how and why?
  • What is the budget and why?

Rigorously asking ALL these questions (and as many more as you can come up with) will uncover the hidden assumptions embedded in the project goals, plans, timelines, and budget forecasts.

Resolving ambiguities and identifying and validating assumptions at the outset makes it more likely that the project will be delivered on time and on budget.

Just as importantly, it greatly increases the odds that the final implementation will be used as intended and will serve the organization’s strategic goals.

References

** Cited in Kinser, J. (2010). Don’t make an ass out of you and me—using assumptions effectively. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2010—North America, Washington, DC. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute. https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/assumptions-based-planning-analyze-techniques-6582

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