In this article our lead PRINCE2® trainer and delegate favourite Richard Lampitt discusses assumptions within the PRINCE2® (or any project) environment. What we need to listen out for as Project Managers, what makes an assumption a 'risk' and how do we deal with it when it does. Assumption Management is the devil's advocate of project management and without it we can fall into a false sense of projected success.
What is ‘Assumption Management' in PRINCE2®?
One decisive factor about projects is that they will always come with ‘uncertainty’; but why is that? This is because projects are undertaken to deliver something new, for which it’s highly unlikely we’ll have all the facts or detail, and so we’re left with having to make assumptions. This then creates uncertainty (risk) related to those assumptions. This is one of the aspects which makes ‘risk management’ a critical factor in the successful delivery of projects, but you could perhaps say that it’s more to do with ‘assumption management’. That said, I’m not saying that all risks are caused by assumptions, rather assumptions generally tend to create risk situations. Why?... because people tend to assume something due to a lack of certainty; hence where there’s assumptions, there’s uncertainty (risk).
A project is a ‘journey’ which needs to be properly thought through and planned out in advance. However, we don’t have a crystal ball to see ‘exactly’ what will occur on that journey, plus it’s unlikely that you’ll have all the relevant information and/or detailed requirements right from the outset. This then causes us to have to make assumptions, which introduces more uncertainty and hence more risk. You may be familiar with that silly saying; “never assume, because when you assume, you’ll make an ASS out of U and ME”! Or maybe it’s not such a silly saying?
Okay, to be fair, we’re all guilty of making assumptions and due to the nature of projects, in particular when planning ahead to the future, we’ll always have to make assumptions (because we don’t have that crystal ball); but I would say the fewer assumptions made the better, right? ALWAYS make it clear to everyone involved of any assumptions that you have/are making. So, before you assume, you should aim to know the facts, or at least as many facts as possible. After all, it’s the responsibility of a Project Manager to gather and document the facts together with any assumptions made. Therefore, if you make an assumption, say so, because if the facts and assumptions aren’t captured and made clearly visible, the risk levels WILL increase unknowingly, so watch out!
Good Project Managers will identify assumptions and turn them into risks
I’ve been programmed over the years to think ‘risk’ each time I hear some form of assumption in the context of a discussion, or perhaps a document I’m reading. A good Project Manager should learn to listen, read very carefully and ‘home-in’ on any information which has an ‘assuming’ context to it and then identify, assess and manage any associated risks. If you’re prepared to proceed with a project that’s laden with assumptions and consequently risks, that’s fine, just ensure everyone fully understands what assumptions have been made and what their associated risks are, because as already mentioned, assumptions create uncertainty and where there’s uncertainty, there’s risk.
Of course, the worst thing you can possibly do is ‘assume’ that people are aware of and understand the project’s assumptions, which I’ve seen happen on several occasions!
Why it’s important to know when you are making assumptions?
Please don’t find yourself saying “I assumed you knew that”, or “I assumed that you ‘would’, ‘could’, ‘had’, etc, etc”, because if you do, then you’re NOT project managing effectively. That said, if the risks related to the assumptions are clearly understood and everyone understands the risk impact and response actions, and the overall risk exposure is deemed acceptable, then by all means proceed with the project. However, you need to keep managing those risks in order to keep them under control and revisit the assumptions on a regular basis, as assumptions and consequently risks tend to reduce as the project evolves due to more detail coming to light. Also, never ‘assume’ your risk response actions are having the desired effect...always monitor the status of the risks and the related risk response actions to check they are having the desired effect. It’s good practice to assign an ‘owner’ to each risk to carry out such monitoring.
How to manage the assumptions you make in the PRINCE2® environment
As mentioned, you should look to gather as many facts/details as you can, which will help reduce the amount of assumptions made and consequently risks generated. As a guide, you should for example (and in no particular order):
- Involve the right people/stakeholders, at the right times throughout the project.
- Ask precise questions and clearly document the answers to questions such as:
- What’s the reason/business justification for why the project’s needed?
- What are the desired outcomes and resulting benefits?
- What are the main objectives of the project?
- What product are we going to create (to achieve the outcomes and benefits)
- What’s the scope (the products) of the project going to include, and what’s excluded?
- What level of quality will make the solution ultimately acceptable to the customer?
- What do we need to do to ensure the quality required is planned and controlled?
- What do we need to do to manage changes to, and protect the different versions of, the products?
- What approach shall we take to ensure we communicate effectively within the project team and with all the project’s stakeholders?
- What approach shall we take to ensure risks are identified, assessed and controlled?**
- What progress monitoring and reporting mechanisms are we going to use?
- What approach are we going to take to deliver the solution? (e.g. in-house development or outsourced; build from scratch or buy off-the-shelf)
- What resources are required to build the project’s products?
- What’s the timescale? When does the project need to be started and completed by?
- What’s the estimated cost and what’s the available budget?
- Who’s responsible for doing what and when with the managing of the project?
- What are the known constraints?
and of course…
- What are the known assumptions?
- What are the known risks?
Assumptions and indeed risks can stem from any of the above factors if not clearly understood. Establishing some of the above will also help you to identify and understand the project’s performance targets (e.g. timescale,
cost, scope, benefits, quality and risk). Make sure these targets are clearly defined, realistic and achievable. Agree which performance targets are particularly sensitive (e.g. time more than cost, or vice versa) and concentrate on protecting those targets from the impact of any risks. Always check and protect the business justification from the impact of risks.
- Make the project information available to all the project team members and key stakeholders, e.g. those with a ‘financial interest’ in the project, those who will ‘operate and/or maintain the project’s products’ and those who will be ‘creating the project’s products’, to ensure they all have the same common understanding about the project. In PRINCE2, this is just one purpose of the Project Initiation Documentation (aka PID).
- Keep the project information up-to-date with any necessary changes in requirements, as such changes are likely to occur during the project, because remember, you don’t have a crystal ball at the very start.
- **Have an approach to risk management for people to follow during the project, which should include procedures for:
- Identifying the risks (using risk workshops/brainstorming/risk prompt lists, etc)
- Assessing the risks (probability, impact and proximity)
- Planning suitable risk responses (to manage the risk, e.g. to reduce or avoid)
- Implementing selected risk responses (e.g. adding risk actions to your plans)
- Communicating risks throughout the project’s life (and beyond where necessary).
So, with all that said, are you risk averse? Do you like uncertainty and consequently like taking risks? Risk taking can of course be good (as every successful entrepreneur will probably tell you), but in the sense of a project, personally, I don’t like risks or assumptions, they make me feel uneasy, but at the same time, I fully appreciate that due to the nature of projects, both are inevitable! That’s fine and I accept that, I just won’t let those assumptions pass me by without applying a bit of common sense risk management, and there’s a good argument to say that risk management within projects is one of the most important aspects of project management.
Raising the ‘What ifs’ in PRINCE2®
My approach and attitude towards risk has however got me into a little bit of trouble in the past! For example, when people tell me their exciting plans, I’ll ‘home-in’ on any assumptions and uncertainties and ask them “what if this were to happen” and “what if that were to happen” etc. I’m then accused of being ‘negative’, but I say I’m not being negative, just ‘realistic’ and I’m only raising the ‘what-if’s’ because I want your plans to be successful, which is a positive thing, isn’t it?!
Essentially, effective risk management is crucial to project management, but so is effective communication. Poorly communicated information that’s full of vague statements which inevitably lead to those dreaded assumptions will only increase a project’s risks and can certainly lead to project failure if inappropriately managed.
Risks within the PRINCE2® and other approaches
I’ve said I’m not comfortable with assumptions or risks (until I’ve got them understood and under my control that is), however risk is the one topic (and a theme covered in the PRINCE2® method) which I find particularly interesting and certainly enjoy teaching. That said, I enjoy teaching every element of PRINCE2®, for which I’m a true advocate and believer. PRINCE2®, however, only covers risk from a ‘project’s’ perspective. If you’d like to know more about managing risk, not just from a project’s perspective, but also from an ‘operational’, ‘programme’ and ‘strategic’ perspective, then there’s more to risk that’s covered in the method M_o_R® (Management of Risk - a Guidance for Practitioners) …you could say that there’s MORE in M_o_R®!
So, in conclusion, do look and listen out for any assumptions being made and start asking a few more specific questions and “what-if’s”, and then assess and control the identified risks/uncertainties within your project. That way you are far more likely to deliver a project successfully within the planned and agreed targets and objectives. This will give you a great sense of achievement, which in turn is truly fulfilling and motivating.
People should never assume or presume anything when it comes to projects. It should be both expected and accepted that, due to their nature, projects will always come with assumptions and risks. That said though, maybe there is ‘one’ thing you should perhaps assume, and that is that people DON’T know all the facts…’PResuming Otherwise Just Exacerbates and Complicates The Situation’…I think that could be a new ‘PROJECTS’ acronym to pass around the web?!
I ‘assume’ you may now be thinking differently about your project’s assumptions and risks?...sorry, I just had to drop that one in!
"Sharing my enthusiasm for a subject which I enjoy helping people to learn and understand, I bring my training courses to life through a fun, engaging yet simplistic and upbeat environment. Why over complicate the learning process?...I'm all for keeping things simple! I always go that extra mile to help my students and get satisfaction from achieving my main objective of every course I deliver, which is..:
To work hard at helping people to easily learn, understand and effectively apply the PRINCE2 and project management knowledge they will gain from attending my training courses, as well as help to enhance their career opportunities through best preparing them for their exams and professional qualifications they can subsequently obtain."
Here's a few comments from Richards' happy delegates...
"I did not get the chance to thank you properly for your handling and delivery of the course this week. Of course, I don’t know the result of the examination yet, but, in any case, I feel much better informed and prepared to manage the current project I am involved in".
"I received my Practitioner results today and I wanted to thank you as I have passed. I took my course week beginning 14th to 18th Jan and I was not at all prepared due to a late booking. You were a fantastic trainer and with all your tips, jokes and encouragements, I made it. Thanks a million"!!
"Can I commend you on your excellent instruction and keeping the subject interesting and utilizing real-life examples from your experience in order to demonstrate the points/advantages of the PRINCE2 application. I thank your instructional technique and class content for achieving the qualification; thus allowing my 'rusty-sponge brain' to take in the alien info. I will recommend you as an Instructor and SPOCE for PRINCE2 and similar courses to any soon-to-be ex Military and or my future civilian colleagues"
"The tutor (Richard) was excellent and made me feel very welcome and his style of teaching and knowledge was first class".
SPOCE Project Management Limited is a global leader in delivering best practice training for project programme and risk management. They offer a wide range of courses which can be tailored to suit any form of training need. For example, public courses e-Learning, blended learning and client workshops. SPOCE is the flagship training provider for PRINCE2® and MSP® and were APMGs first ever training provider.