Assumptions The Silent Assassin

Recently, I’ve had the chance to work in a number of projects that were at a crucial point of implementing, aka. “the business end”. This period of time in any project is hectic to say the least. Everyone is exerting huge amounts of effort to get to that end goal, and with the finish date getting closer, energy levels are high and the days are often long.

During this time, I have found that there are a few things which can derail or cause project stress, such as a decrease in team motivation, changes in scope and or changes to key staff. But one of the biggest things that will stop a project in its tracks is the silent assassin: assumptions.

Assumptions can take two distinct forms. Things that we take for granted that will stay the same, or things we have to assume because we don’t know everything yet! These are the quiet killers in the project jungle. They move with stealth and speed, quietly sneaking up on its unsuspecting prey – the project manager. When assumptions finally do pounce, they add noise and commotion, distracting the project team and averting precious resources to handle them. Phrases such as “I assumed that….”, “I expected…” or “I thought that…” become commonplace. This is fine if the assumption is correct, but the other way around can cause chaos. When plans are based on shaky foundations, no matter how strong the building is, it may still crumble.

And you are left considering the saying (and cursing its existence): “assumptions make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me'”.

So how does an eleven letter word make such a difference?

These are my tips on how to manage assumptions so that you don’t end up being a donkey:

Questions, questions, questions – when you don’t know for sure, ASK! Always ask questions – never assume anything, every project environment should be open to the question of direction and also fact checking. If sentences start with “I thought that…”or “I assume that”, people are testing their version of the truth. The best projects have these questions asked before the implementation stage; encourage your stakeholders to test their understanding of the truth.

Capture your assumptions and share them – assumptions usually appear in the beginning of projects, but can happen at any time. So it is useful to capture these during the life of the project, in whichever forms you can: in a register, on a post-it note, or shared at team meetings. The important thing is, don’t keep it to yourself!

Everyone on the team has a role to manage assumptions – we all need to manage and monitor them regularly. Unchecked assumptions can have a detrimental impact on key decisions along the way. Imagine how the world might have changed if the crew of the Titanic had not assumed that they could pass by that iceberg….

Create an open culture – ask your stakeholders, your team and most of all yourself to regularly use the assumption language, when wanting to confirm the fact from fiction. Expect to hear questions that start with: “I assume that…. Is correct”, asking the listener to agree or disagree. Give people in your project environment the courage to confirm or deny what they hear, ask or believe.

On that note I leave you with one quote to think about – “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Donald Rumsfeld.

Food for thought!

Picture of Lisa Twyford

Lisa Twyford

At the start of my career, I learned quickly that many organisations were full of good intentions, but all too often lacking the skills and know-how to execute effectively. That’s why I founded clear decisions™ over 12 years ago. My vision was simple, I had a desire to help businesses and their people move through change projects with great success.


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