Thursday, January 24, 2008

The biology of assumptions

One of the things I've learned in my career as a project manager, a manager of project managers, and a facilitator of PM courseware, is the lifecycle of an assumption. What's that, you say? Assumptions don't have a lifecycle!

Bad assumption.

Project managers had better familiarize themselves with the following biology:

  • Assumptions are the larval state of risks.

  • Risks can regress back to assumptions, although with human intervention.

  • Assumptions have the capability to camouflage, just like Family Chamaeleonidae

Let's take these one at a time...

Assumptions are the larval state of a risk: As you begin a project, you make some assumptions. These are typically conscious assumptions, such as: "the bedrock in the area we are digging is sufficiently deep enough for us not to be concerned about needing to blast". Now you start to dig, the work crew informs you that they have encountered rock. This assumption has just matured. You have yourself a risk. In PMI terminology, this particular risk is a threat - the negative variety of risk. It could just as well have been the other way around - you might've assumed a certain amount of blasting and then been lucky enough to have this particular assumption blossom into an opportunity. Either way, you are seeing the point, I think, that assumptions do grow up.

Risks can regress back to assumptions with human intervention: This actually brings up one of PMI's important themes. Risks are not something to be identified and forgotten about. They need to be monitored as you execute the project. New risks may arise (threats or opportunities), and some risks you'd identified may not really be significant to think about, so you can relegate them back to assumptions. This is why I assert that it takes human intervention to devolve the risk to an assumption. It should be done consciously and with the idea that it might mature suddenly on you at any time.

Assumptions have the capabilty to camouflage: There are, unfortunately, many assumptions that you make unknowingly. For example, you may be doing business internationally and not consider the exchange rate between two countries, perhaps because it'd been stable for decades. In this case, the assumption successfully hid from you. Obviously this is not a good situation because without even documenting this assumption, you didn't even have a basis for developing a risk response plan, since it wasn't even identified as a potential risk. This is why I coach my PMs and my students to get as broad a view and as deep a view as possible when brainstorming risk identification. Ask those who have been in the trenches. Go WAY outside of the office to find these hidden risks. Perspective is absolutely a lifesaver here. Use your lessons learned from previousl projects. They probably have a full zoology of animals and plants capable of sophisticated techniques to hide - and you can benefit from their explorations of the project jungle. If you are lucky and/or if your organization is mature enough, they have catalogued their discoveries in some form of repository (we call it a lessons learned, or if you are from the UK, a lessons learnt). Either way, a broad/deep view and a review of lessons learned gives you enhanced perspective. Imagine your enahnced perspective acting as an infrared camera or supersensitive microphone, able to detect that chameleon despite its camouflage.


So here are the lessons from Biology 409 today:
  • IDENTIFY risk with a variety of perspectives
  • Look deep (all levels of employees have GOLD here)
  • Look broad (all functions, and stakeholders have GOLD here)
  • DOCUMENT your assumptions. These may trigger others.
  • CONTINUE to look for risks even as you execute
  • FEEL FREE to downgrade a risk to an assumption if the information is good enough to indicate that the risk is indeed that low
  • AVOID stepping in chameleon dung

OK. That last one was just there to see if you assumed they'd all be serious.


lazymale said...

Excellent post. Inspires me to write on how Risk Planning is not taken seriously in some organizations and what the impact would be. It will be soon on and i hope to get your feedback. Thank you for your inspirational thoughts.

Anonymous said...


I found your blog from your LinkedInBloggers introduction and I like what I've read so far.

This article on assumptions lead me to write the following post on "Technical Governance Entities" (

Thank you for the inspiration, and keep up the good blogging.

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