As project managers, one mantra we have is that a goal without an action plan is just a wish. Fair enough to say that sometimes it is tough to come up with a plan when everything seems unpredictable. To make your life easier, you can leverage the tricks of the trade of project managers without being a matter expert. Stay with me and see how professionals deal with uncertainties. Welcome to the world of assumptions.
What is an assumption?
Assumptions are those things that you decide to believe to be true, real, or certain, even though you don’t have proof at the moment. In plain English, making assumptions is the closest you can get to predicting the future.
But assumptions are a double-edged sword. They are necessary to make progress in the face of the unknown, but assumptions can get you into serious trouble if you don’t manage them well.
How assumptions can help you
Some people struggle their entire life to take action. Perfectionism, love for detail, and intolerance to risk are real and painful burdens to overcome.
If you identified yourself with the previous description, assumptions are the key to unblock your state of paralysis. Assumptions are an excellent short-term substitute for knowledge while you are making progress towards your next step in your plan. It involves a little bit of faith and a few more strategic thinking. The trick is that at the beginning, you have to expect some things to be in place. At the same time, you have to work to gain more knowledge about the situation and understand better if your assumption is valid.
Please don’t take me wrong, I am not trying to call for abandoning our common sense and jump from a cliff expecting that a parachute will appear on your back when you need it. We need to use assumptions wisely. Let’s take a look at the other side of the coin.
How assumptions can cause you problems
Some people are born optimists. We have to understand that assumptions are like “two for one offer” in the supermarket: whenever you create an assumption, you automatically get the risk as a byproduct. Risks represent the consequence of a wrong guess. In other words, they are the potential issues that you will face if your assumption proves incorrect.
Let’s imagine that you want to go for a hike tomorrow and expect to have a beautiful sunny day. If it rains, and your assumption about the weather proves wrong, well, you will end up getting wet. Perhaps you get a cold at the end instead of enjoying a lovely day surrounded by nature.
Another problem arises when we overuse assumptions and don’t consider alternative ways to achieve a goal.
Let’s continue with the previous example: The reason why you decided to go for a hike was mainly to increase your fitness level. Knowing that the weather in April is unpredictable, you might decide to go to the gym instead of going to the mountains. You do not need to assume anything about the weather if you go anywhere indoors.
But there is a much worse issue, the mother of all of them: You do not know that you are assuming something because you think that you know it for sure. Nobody is innocent of that sin.
Managing assumptions like a project manager
There are three easy steps that project managers follow when they deal with assumptions.
- Identify assumptions
- Analyze assumptions
- Plan and act
1- Identify assumptions: Tell your story
As we said before, assumptions that you don’t identify you cannot manage. I recommend a simple exercise to define the necessary assumptions for your personal needs. We will call this method “tell your story.”
Take a piece of paper and put your goal at the top of the page. Start writing roughly the steps you need to do to achieve it and what you expect to happen for you to be able to make progress.
Take a look at the story. Is there anything in it that you took for granted?What is in your story that you do not know yet but need to happen to reach your goal? Talk to a friend. Explain to him or her that you are looking for flaws in your plan. Share your story. Tell him or her to ask questions about any details and logic in it. Take notes, highlight the assumptions in your story, and then turn them into a list.
2- Analyze: Narrow down the list, decide what is relevant
Take a look at the list of assumptions that you just made and decide which ones are critical and which ones you can ignore. You cannot plan for everything, so be ready to accept that only a few assumptions shall get attention.
Some assumptions will be reasonable, as you have some knowledge, some of them might seem challenging to confirm. Critical assumptions will imply risks that can destroy your plan. Use the following sentence to expose the risk of the assumption and understand how critical it is:
If <negate assumption>, then <consequence>
Assumption: Tomorrow we will have good weather, no need for extra equipment for the barbecue party
Risk formulation: If tomorrow is a rainy day, then the barbecue will be canceled.
Is the consequence acceptable to you? If not, then you have found a critical assumption, you need to manage it.
Let’s move to the final step to deal with the shortlist of assumptions to manage.
Note: If your project is full of assumptions, then you need to reconsider to start small, learn, and iterate. We will write more about how to deal with highly uncertain plans in future posts.
3 Plan and Act: Alternatives and Reality-check
Now you have a shortlist of critical assumptions, and you know why they are dangerous and how they might jeopardize your plan. You have two strategies to deal with it:
The first strategy is to plan a reality-check. Think about how to test your assumptions, or at least to gain more knowledge to confirm them. Searching on the web, talking to friends, or people with similar past experiences might help you to know if your assumption is reasonable or not. You can also design a small experiment to test parts of the assumption. For instance, if you want to move to a new city because you expect to have more access to entertainment and cultural activities, you might decide to rent a flat for one month and work from there before making the final decision.
The second strategy is to find alternatives to have a plan B at hand. Here you need to be creative while having the final goal in mind. Ask yourself: “What else can I do here?” and then ask again, “And what else?”
You can use assumptions for your benefit. If you identify and reality-test them before the time comes, you will gain knowledge and will be ready to pivot to an alternative.
Remember: Just because you assume things to be true does not mean that they will happen as you expect, you need to prepare for that.