Tips for Managing Your Assumption Risks

Risks and Issues

A major element of project management is the identification, analysis, and handling of risks. There are many types of risks that Project Managers must consider, but there is one type, that in my opinion, is not given the attention it deserves, and that is assumptions. This post explores that concern and offers some suggestions on how we might improve.

Risks result from a lack of, or uncertainty surrounding, an element of needed project knowledge. That knowledge deficit, or uncertainty, means that we can’t “know” all the things that we need to know to effectively plan and execute our projects. The more complex the project, the more “un-knowables” there are to challenge our future success. Our brains prefer the “simple things” to complex things. Our brains and our bodies become stressed when what we’re sensing doesn’t match the mental models we’ve formed. So, when we face project-planning uncertainties, we naturally want to simplify things, by making assumptions. Assumptions are decisions that we make, consciously or unconsciously, to artificially eliminate uncertainty for our convenience. Most of the time these assumptions work out pretty well, but when they turn out to be wrong, they can create difficult, even disastrous results. Assumptions are risks and must be managed as such.

So what can Project Managers do to improve the way we manage our assumption risks? Here are a few of my thoughts. I welcome your comments and ideas.

1. Think of yourself as a knowledge manager. Try to visualize your project as a knowledge transformation system that takes what you know and adds to it to create new knowledge solutions for your customer. When you see the project through the eyes of a knowledge manager you will make better decisions about your conscious assumptions and be more aware of the subconscious ones. Using the knowledge domain as a thinking framework can help:
• Make sure you really know what you think you know. Good assumptions… low risk assumptions, are they really “Known-Knowns”. On a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being best, how confident are you in your assumption? Is it really true or do you just want it to be true?
• Be diligent and honest in deciding what you know you don’t know or “Known-UnKnowns.” If you have some confidence, but not enough, your assumptions are in this part of the knowledge domain. Handle them as you would handle at least a low to moderate risk.

2. Challenge your assumptions. When you identify an assumption, challenge it with critical thinking.
• Is the assumption logical, credible and supported by objective evidence?
• Has the assumption been vetted by a knowledgeable, non-advocate process?
• Are there biases (yours or others) that might have influenced the assumption?
• Have you looked for the unintended consequences of a bad assumption?
• Even if the assumption is good now, what things could change to make it a bad one?
• What can you do now to protect against a failed assumption?

3. Manage your assumptions as a part of your normal risk management process.
• If assumptions are risks, then they ought to be listed in your risk register.
• As risks, the likelihood and consequences of bad assumptions must be assessed
• Prepare and deploy mitigation actions and contingency plans for your assumption risks.
• Regularly monitor your assumption risks along with all your other Project risks

4. Raise your level of assumption situational awareness. If you’re really going to protect yourself from bad assumptions, then you must be hyper-aware of things that could turn them from good to bad.
• What are the characteristics of your assumption that should be watched?
• Use trusted and non-advocate advisors to help you watch and assess assumption.


About donmcalister

I retired at the end of 2011, after a 39 year career in the Aerospace industry as an Propulsion Engineer, Engineering Manager and Program Manager. My professional interests and expertise is in the areas of Program, Risk and Knowledge Management. I'm passionate about life-long learning involving a wide variety of topics and I'm committed to sharing my knowledge and ideas with those who are interested. My primary hobby is performing jazz music. I'm a jazz keyboard player, and vocalist, and I'm on the Board of Directors of the non-profit Simi Valley Jazz Club, which is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of jazz music from the '20's through the 60's.
This entry was posted in Best Practices, Better Thinking, Program & Knowledge Management, Risk Management. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Tips for Managing Your Assumption Risks

  1. Chad says:

    Hi Don,

    Thank you for sharing.

    By far, the best method I know for have a better assumptions is to challenge it with a risk check list like what you wrote. And then push the team to raise their evidence.

  2. Mike Trimble says:

    Hi Don,

    Four (4) great ways to better manage the risk (i.e. uncertainty) associated with conscious assumptions. But unconscious assumptions can be equally as disastrous. Here’s some ideas for helping to identifying the latter.

    1. Don’t work in a vacuum. Brainstorm assumptions with a diverse group of stakeholders to help surface what were previously unconscious assumptions.
    2. Prepare a project charter and get it approved by the sponsor if not already done. If the proposed charter is not approved it’s often do to what were previously unconscious assumptions (e.g. staying within budget is a higher priority than meeting the schedule).
    3. Share the approved project charter with other key stakeholders for the purpose of documenting any additional conscious assumptions and previously unconscious assumptions.
    4. Review lessons learned from prior projects/phases – Often times these are the result of unconscious assumptions.
    5. Create a risk register – Documenting known threats and opportunities can help to surface previously unconscious assumptions.
    6. Review a list of assumptions documented in prior project plans and/or your organization’s project management policies and procedures manual to see if you’re missing any.

    I checked the box that says “notify me of new comments via email. I look forward to receiving and reading them.

  3. donmcalister says:

    Mike. Thanks for these excellent ideas. The biggest problem I’ve encountered related to assumptions is that some of them are ignored as “givens” in the hectic process of starting up a Project. Using the methods you suggest and others, they can be brought forward to the team and consciously evaluated and tracked as risks.

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