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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Avoid Unconscious Assumptions

Joan managed a few projects for a couple of customers. In all cases the process looked pretty similar. With another implementation of the same system for a new client she was quite certain there won’t be huge differences. Unfortunately the client worked in a much formalized environment and enforced very long, waterfallish acceptance tests. This stage took 3 times more than it was planned. Slip had an impact on rest of schedule and as a result project was delivered way too late.

Joan, along with the whole team, made an unconscious assumption the client would act pretty much the same as others did. If the assumption hadn’t been made the schedule would have been longer (aka realistic).

Luke was busy developing dedicated UI for an application his team was working on. There weren’t many details in requirements but this was just another application for the same customer so he didn’t think much about UI design. He made it looking similarly to those which were accepted by the customer in previous projects. Unfortunately it appeared this time UI had to be different since the client planned to integrate it with some other pieces of software whatsoever. Luke ended rewriting most of the UI and the project was late and over budget.

Luke unconsciously assumed the UI design from previous applications would work well this time too. If the assumption hadn’t been made the work would have been done only once and the project would end in glory.

Now if Joan and Luke made the very same assumptions but did that consciously they’d most likely cross-check them with their stakeholders. Joan would learn that acceptance tests would be a pain in the ass and would probably adjust either resources, a project plan or both. Luke, or his PM, would gather additional requirements and it would be clear UI should be different this time.

In both situations the main problem was not what Luke and Joan assumed about their projects. It was unconsciousness of decisions they made.

Assumptions are inevitable part of project management. Since software projects and business requirements are ever-changing we should regularly check if our assumptions are still good. But first of all we should try to make them consciously. This definitely helps.

in: project management

4 comments… add one

  • Anonymous January 9, 2009, 1:13 am

    You forgot to mention that Management Board made the same unconsious assumptions about the acceptance tests phase.

    Furthermore – Joan’s assumption didn’t matter at all, as long as project plan was forced by the sales team on presales stage.

    Joan :-)

  • Pawel Brodzinski January 9, 2009, 1:59 am

    Actually writing “Joan, along with the whole team” I meant management too.

    And about importance of the assumption – that’s exactly my point. It didn’t matter since it was done unconsciously. If the team was aware of the assumption everyone would know how the project would go a few of months earlier. Even if the schedule wouldn’t be changed because of sales team or the client still Joan would be able to adjust at least plan of work (if nothing else).

    If you know you’re going to fail with some delivery, but you know it a few months ahead, you have enough time to prepare plan B. If you realize that a week before the deadline all you can do is to try to calm the client down a bit. That’s a significant difference, isn’t it?

  • Mike A January 20, 2009, 9:00 am

    Great post, Pawel. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the same thing happen repeatedly on projects over the years. You’re absolutely right — it’s the “hidden” nature of these assumptions that’s so dangerous.

    I find a lot of confusion among requirements/business analysts regarding the documentation of assumptions. Many analysts capture assumptions about requirements and use cases, but the assumptions are about things like pre-conditions or system states. What they fail to capture are their own, personal assumptions that went into documenting the requirements (things like “this project is just like Project X, so we can use the same UI” or “additional details about this feature will be captured before implementation begins.”

    Thanks for reminding us all to get those assumptions out in the open!

  • Pawel Brodzinski January 20, 2009, 9:08 am

    Thanks for a comment Mike.

    On the other side there are unconscious assumptions too. Sometimes our clients are so sure something has to work “their way” that they don’t even mension that. And we end up in a similar situation. That is even harder to control than our own project assumptions.

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