Your ultimate guide to project assumptions

A quick guide to project assumptions: Identify, document, and manage assumptions effectively with best practices to improve project delivery
October 30, 2023
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Mukundh Krishna

As strategies take shape, deadlines get real, and projects come to life,  there's something working behind the scenes – project assumptions.

They play a key role in shaping the trajectory of a project, and understanding and managing them is essential for effective project delivery.

 In this comprehensive blog post, we dive deep into project assumptions, their significance, and how they relate to project constraints, dependencies, and risks. We will also explore practical examples of project assumptions and best practices for managing them effectively.

What are project assumptions?

In the world of project management, assumptions are essentially educated guesses or beliefs about certain aspects of a project that you consider true – often without concrete evidence or confirmation. Project assumptions fill gaps in knowledge or information, and serve as the foundation upon which project plans are built.

Project assumptions extend to a wide range of project elements, including:

1. Resource availability: Assumptions about the availability of team members, equipment, or other resources necessary for project execution.

2. Budget and costs: Assumptions regarding the project budget, including cost estimates and financial constraints.

3. Project scheduling: Assumptions about the timeline and sequence of project tasks and milestones.

4. Technical dependencies: Beliefs about the functionality, compatibility, or reliability of technical components or software used in the project.

5. Stakeholder behavior: Beliefs about how stakeholders, such as clients or team members, will act or respond during the project.

6. Environmental or market conditions: Assumptions regarding the external environment and its potential impact on the project. This could include assumptions about weather conditions or market trends.

7. Compliance and security: Beliefs about the project's compliance with relevant laws, regulations, or industry standards.

Real-world examples of project assumptions

To gain a better understanding of project assumptions, let's explore some real-world examples:

1. Resource availability 

Assumption: A key team member with specialized product implementation skills will be available throughout the customer onboarding project.

Impact on the project: The specialized skills of the team member can help ensure a smoother client onboarding experience. 

However, if this team member becomes unavailable, it may lead to delays or the need to find a replacement.
2. Stakeholder behavior 

Assumption: Timely feedback and approvals from the client will be consistent at every project milestone.

Impact on the project: Consistent client engagement ensures project progress remains on schedule and aligns with milestones. 

However, any deviations from this assumption could potentially disrupt project timelines and milestones.
3. Technical compatibility 

Assumption: There will be seamless integration between your product and the client’s existing IT infrastructure.

Impact on the project: Smooth integration ensures that your product will work as expected in their context.

However, compatibility issues may necessitate additional time and resources, impacting the project's financial and scheduling aspects.

4. Budget assumption

Assumption: There will be no significant changes in the approved budget.

Impact on the project: A stable budget allows for effective resource allocation and consistent project scope. However, any unexpected expenses or budget revisions can disrupt resource planning and project scope, impacting project execution and possibly deadlines.

It’s easy to see that incorrect project assumptions can lead to delays, budget overruns, and other issues that can significantly impact project success.

This means that project assumptions, by their nature, come with risks.

However, you can’t plan a project without them. 

Why are project assumptions important?

Project assumptions matter because you can't move forward without them. In a project plan, it's impossible to validate every single detail, like costs and timelines, so you have to estimate. Assumptions are what allow you to begin planning and executing the project. The more reasonable your project assumptions, the more effective your project management and delivery will be.
Here are a few ways project assumptions contribute to project success:

  1. Foundation for planning: Assumptions provide the foundation on which you can build your project. They help project managers make initial decisions and establish the project's direction.
  2. Risk identification: By acknowledging assumptions, you can proactively address potential risks. The key is to identify and document assumptions at each stage of the project.
  3. Shared understanding: Assumptions when clearly communicated,  ensure that everyone involved in the project has a shared understanding of what to expect during the project.
  4. Decision-making: Assumptions influence decision-making throughout the project lifecycle. They guide choices related to resource allocation, scope, and schedule.
  5. Accountability: Documented assumptions can help you hold team members and stakeholders accountable for their beliefs and expectations. 
  6. Flexibility: Acknowledging assumptions also highlights areas where the project requires more flexibility.

The connection between project constraints, dependencies, risks, and assumptions

Project assumptions do not exist in isolation; they are closely intertwined with other project elements, such as constraints, dependencies, and risks. Understanding these connections is crucial for effective project management.

What are project constraints?

Project constraints are limitations or boundaries that can impact the project's scope, schedule, cost, or quality. 

Common project constraints include:

  1. Time constraints: Fixed deadlines or timeframes that must be adhered to.
  2. Budget constraints: Financial limitations that impact resource allocation.
  3. Scope constraints: Restrictions on what can be included in the project.
  4. Resource constraints: Limitations related to the availability of people, equipment, or materials.

Constraints are closely linked with project assumptions. For example, an assumption that a certain resource, say a software license will be available may become a constraint if it becomes unavailable.

There are two main differences between assumptions and constraints, namely:

  1. Assumptions are assumed to be true while constraints are known to be true. 
  2. Constraints aren’t typically good for the project whereas assumptions can be good for the project.

What are project dependencies?

Project dependencies are relationships between tasks, activities, or components within a project. Dependencies are commonly categorized as:

  1. Finish-to-Start (FS): The dependent task cannot start until the preceding task is finished.
  2. Start-to-Start (SS): The dependent task can start when the preceding task starts.
  3. Finish-to-Finish (FF): The dependent task finishes when the preceding task finishes.
  4. Start-to-Finish (SF): The dependent task finishes when the preceding task starts.

Dependencies are closely linked to assumptions because assumptions about task durations, sequences, or prerequisites influence how dependencies are defined.

What are project risks?

Project risks are events or circumstances that have the potential to negatively impact the project's objectives. They can be categorized as:

  1. Known Risks: Risks that have been identified and analyzed.
  2. Unknown Risks: Risks that have not yet been identified or are not fully understood.

Assumptions often introduce risks because they are based on incomplete information or uncertain conditions. When assumptions turn out to be incorrect, they can trigger risks that need to be managed.

Project risks and assumptions, though similar, aren’t the same. Risks deal with uncertain events while assumptions are assumed to be certain so they can be used as a starting point for planning.

What forms the base for project assumptions?

The foundation for project assumptions is often built upon a combination of factors that draw from both experience, intuition, and data, such as:

  1. Historical data: One of the most influential sources shaping project assumptions is historical data. This information encapsulates the outcomes, challenges, and successes of past projects. By analyzing historical data, you gain invaluable insights into patterns, trends, and potential pitfalls. 
  2. This data-driven approach allows you to make assumptions based on concrete evidence, increasing the likelihood of accurate planning.
  3. Lessons learned: Every project, regardless of its outcome, presents multiple learning opportunities. Project managers often distill these lessons into actionable insights that help inform their assumptions. 
  4. Whether it's recognizing the impact of scope changes or understanding the importance of stakeholder engagement, these lessons can shape the way future assumptions are made.
  5. Customer feedback or customer satisfaction surveys: Client satisfaction surveys play a pivotal role in forming assumptions for client-facing projects. Feedback from previous clients and end-users provides a real-world perspective on what worked and what didn't. Assumptions related to user expectations, preferences, and potential challenges can be refined through these insights.
  6. Industry best practices: The dynamic nature of business demands that you stay attuned to industry best practices. These practices, rooted in collective wisdom and continuous improvement, guide assumptions in areas such as project methodologies, risk management, and resource allocation.
  7. Expert consultation: You can also rely on the expertise of subject matter experts or specialists within or outside their teams to validate assumptions in specific domains. These experts bring their knowledge and insights to the table, ensuring that assumptions align with the latest industry standards and technical nuances.

Best practices for managing project assumptions

1. Create a project assumption log for every project

Create a centralized log or document to track all project assumptions. Include details such as the assumption, the person responsible, the date, and the status (validated or pending). This assumption log should inform the writing of the project charter

Make sure to include assumptions about:

  1. All planned tasks
  2. Your resources
  3. Your team members
  4. Key milestones
  5. The overall budget
  6. Resource costs

When making an assumption log, be sure to include the following 

  1. The date the assumption is logged
  2. The category (budget, scheduling, etc.)
  3. Name and describe the assumption
  4. Impact of assumption, such as high, medium, or low
  5. An owner who is responsible for the assumption
  6. A plan of action to mitigate the impact if the assumption is true
  7. Date for next assumption review

2. Assess every potential assumption and develop contingency plans

At the project initiation stage, identify and document all assumptions. Ensure that assumptions are clear, specific, and linked to particular aspects of the project. Involve key stakeholders in this process to gather their input and perspectives.

If possible, include a periodic review of assumptions with key stakeholders.

For critical assumptions, consider developing contingency plans or alternative approaches in case the assumptions do not hold true.
3. Integrate the assumptions

Integrate assumptions into your project planning, scheduling, and risk management processes. Make sure that project plans and schedules account for the uncertainties introduced by assumptions. 

Ensure that all team members and stakeholders are aware of the project assumptions and understand their significance. 

4. Maintain control and document changes 

Throughout the project lifecycle, continuously monitor and evaluate assumptions. Be prepared to adjust plans if assumptions change or new information becomes available. This requires open communication and collaboration within the project team.

If assumptions change during the project, document the reasons for the change and communicate it to all relevant stakeholders.
5. Do a post-project review and document changes/recommendations

After the project is completed, conduct a post-project review to assess the accuracy of assumptions and their impact on the project. Use this feedback to improve your assumptions management process for future projects.

Make sure to include the following in your post-project review:

  1. Expectations and outcomes (with respect to project milestones, schedule, completion dates, client feedback, etc.)
  2. Notes on phase-to-phase transitions
  3. Recommendations for future projects

Manage project assumptions with Rocketlane

Managing project assumptions can be a complex task, especially when dealing with multiple stakeholders and evolving project dynamics. 

A PSA tool like Rocketlane can streamline the assumption management process and help you turn assumptions into a viable project plan. 

Rocketlane seamlessly integrates these foundational elements of data-driven insights, collaboration, and customer feedback  to enhance assumption management:

  1. Historical data, insights, and recommendations in one place: With Rocketlane, you can leverage historical project data, across multiple projects, to inform assumptions. This data-driven approach ensures that assumptions are grounded in concrete evidence, increasing the accuracy of project planning. The centralized repository provides easy access to all team members, fostering collaboration.
  2. Collaboration and expert consultation: Rocketlane facilitates collaboration and expert consultation by providing a platform for sharing and discussing lessons learned as well as technical inputs from experts. These insights enrich the quality of assumptions, ensuring that they align with industry standards and customer/client needs.
  3. Inbuilt customer feedback collection: With Rocketlane, you can integrate customer feedback and satisfaction survey data to refine assumptions. This real-world perspective enhances assumptions related to customer interactions and needs, making them more customer-centric and grounded in real feedback.
  4. Analytics and reporting: Rocketlane's reporting and analytics capabilities offer insights into how assumptions impact project progress and success. Project managers can monitor assumptions' performance against historical data, identifying areas for improvement and adjustment.
  5. In addition, its real-time project notifications can help you keep stakeholders informed of changes or validation requirements for assumptions.

Sign up for a Rocketlane demo to see this in action.

FAQs on project assumptions

1. What are project assumptions, and why are they important in project management?

Project assumptions are factors considered true, real, or certain without empirical proof or demonstration. They are essential in project management as they guide planning, risk assessment, and decision-making. Unclear or unaddressed assumptions can lead to project delays and failures.

2. How can I identify and document project assumptions effectively?

Identifying project assumptions involves examining every aspect of the project, questioning what is taken for granted, and consulting team members and stakeholders. Documenting them should be a structured process, often done through assumption logs or registers.

3. What is the relationship between project assumptions, risks, and constraints?

Project assumptions can lead to risks if they turn out to be incorrect. For example, assuming a supplier will meet a certain delivery date is an assumption. If the supplier fails to meet that date, it becomes a risk. Constraints, on the other hand, are predefined limitations such as budget, timeline, or resources that can impact assumptions and risks.

4. How can I mitigate the impact of incorrect project assumptions?

Mitigating incorrect assumptions involves proactive planning and risk management. You can create contingency plans, regularly validate assumptions, and communicate any changes or deviations to stakeholders promptly.

5. What can help me make better project assumptions?

To make better project assumptions, rely on historical data, consult experts, involve team members, and conduct thorough risk assessments. Additionally, use a structured approach to document and validate assumptions throughout the project lifecycle.

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Rahul Sridhar
Content Marketer @ Rocketlane

Content Marketer at Rocketlane. Former teacher turned tech writer. Occasionally dabbles in comedy and rap music.

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