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Episode 375: Project Assumptions (Free)

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Beth Spriggs
Beth Spriggs and Cornelius Fichtner

This interview about assumptions in project management with Beth Spriggs was recorded at the 2016 PMI® Global Congress in San Diego, California. We discuss her paper and presentation The Risky Business of Assumptions - Uncovering the Truth, as We Assume It to Be. Here is the abstract:

We all hold assumptions, then make decisions and take actions based on those assumptions without verifying their validity. Worse is when other people hold assumptions about our work and we don’t know it. This can impact user adoption, timeline, scope, quality, and overall project success. Not to mention personal frustration, stress, and desires to pull out one’s own hair.

Unchecked assumptions can be very dangerous in the workplace. We should be mindful of some common assumptions and actively work to uncover assumptions. Doing so will bolster project work and open up new paths for identifying risks.

Some project assumption examples that Beth introduces us to are assuming a project or task is easier or faster than it actually is, assuming priorities are aligned and haven't changed, and assuming who owns, or is responsible for, what.

Very importantly the paper and discussion also include a section about uncovering assumptions. Here, Beth offers us 5 ideas on how to develop and expand our project assumptions list.

PDU Tip

This interview is 23 minutes long. This means that you can "legally" only claim 0.25 PDUs for listening to it. However... if you first listen to the interview and then also read the white paper on which it is based, then you can go ahead and claim 0.50 PMP PDUs!

Click to download the white paper

Episode Transcript

Below are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

Podcast Introduction

Cornelius Fichtner:  Welcome back everyone to the Project Management Podcast at www.pm-podcast.com . We are coming to you live from the hallways of the sunny San Diego Convention Center here in Southern California. We are at the 2016 PMI Global Congress and standing with me at the perfectly nice table today is Beth Spriggs.   

Podcast Interview

Cornelius Fichtner:   Hello, Beth.

Beth Spriggs:   Hello.    

Cornelius:   Good afternoon. Have you already delivered your presentation?

Beth:   I have.

Cornelius:   Oh! How was it? Did they kick you out?

Beth:   It was great. It was great. I had a full room, lot of engagements, good conversations and I always love it when the class teaches me more than I feel like I’ve taught them.

Cornelius:   That’s always the case, isn’t it?

Beth:   Yeah.

Cornelius:   Your topic is the risky business of Assumptions—uncovering the truth as we assume it to be. What interests you in assumptions that you decided, “Ok, I’m going to write about this and I’m going to speak about this”.

Beth:   I think it’s that we don’t talk about them because they’re assumed. And by their very definition, it’s not something we talk about. I’m trying to bring it up to the forefront of our attention so that we do think about it, talk about it, discuss it and realize the implications so we can do something about it. Because most of the time it’s just in the back of our mind. We don’t even think to bring it up.

Cornelius:   I don’t want to assume that everybody knows so let me ask you this: “What is an assumption?”

Beth:   An assumption is a truth, a belief, it is something that we believe is true, whether it is or not, it doesn’t have to be true but in our minds, we believe it is true. It very rarely is communicated, usually we don’t think to communicate it because it’s true.

Cornelius:   You know.

Beth:   You just know.

Cornelius:   Right. Why do I have to talk?

Beth:   So why do I have to say it? That’s just a belief in your mind.

Cornelius:   Why can assumptions in the workplace get more dangerous?

Beth:   This is interesting, because we live our lives with assumptions. Before I travel to San Diego, I assumed I would get here safely. Before I go to the grocery store, I assume the store is going to be open. When I get dressed in the morning I assume that weather predictions are accurate. Assumptions are the gatekeepers of behavior. Most of the time they serve us well. They let us live our lives. We don’t have to check them. We know they’re going to work. The problem is, they get dangerous in the work place and that is where the risk comes in because when we’re at work and making assumptions, that’s when things can go really wrong. So what I have learned is, there’s good assumptions and there’s risky assumptions and we’re trying to figure out the risky ones and what we can do about them. The very definition of the assumptions is what makes them risky at work is the fact that it is something that we believe is true, we take action based on that belief. We don’t check it, we just think it’s right but we are making actions and decisions and change in our behavior on it and we don’t talk about it, and at work that gets very dangerous.

Cornelius:   The main portion of your paper talks about a number of common assumptions. We’re going to go through them one by one but what makes them common?

Beth:   These are things that I have seen in my experience come up over and over and what I’ve talked with other people about assumptions, I generally get the same response, like “Yup, I see that one all the time” and bringing this to our attention because of the risks around these.

Cornelius:   Alright. Let’s take a look at the first assumption, the first common assumption is: assuming a project or task is easier or faster than it actually is.

Beth:   Yes, and I feel like this is something that everyone can relate to. Last night’s session was end of the day, great! Four to five. I know everyone’s tired so basically I said, “I know you’re all not going to raise your hand, so tell you what, raise your hand only if this has never happened to you”. Of course no one raised their hand. So, I’m going to assume this has happened to everyone. The fact that people think things are faster than they actually are is just rampant and it changes expectations on our work. If we don’t call that out and reset those expectations, we’re hurting ourselves, we’re hurting our project timelines, we’re hurting our goals, our success measures and then it looks like we have failed. When the only thing we have failed to do is call out their assumptions and reset expectations.

Cornelius:   The second one is: assuming priorities are aligned and haven’t changed.

Beth:   Yeah. I look for help for someone and then next thing you know they’re boss lists them on something else and my thing drops on their list and they don’t tell me. I don’t know. Or, I’ve done that to them. All of these assumptions I like to start with, look at yourself first and what you’re doing because the first thing you can change is yourself. So if something in your worker priorities have changed, what have you done to communicate that out to someone else? Have you been responsible in making sure you’re letting people know? And I’m the worst. I do this to my team all the time. I pull them off work and I constantly change. I’m like, you know that thing you thought you’re going to do this week? Yeah, you’re not. You’re going to work on this other project and when we don’t tell people the implications of those changes, someone else is sitting there going, “Well gee, Steven just never got back to me, he didn’t talk to me”. And it feels bad. Once we tell people they have the context, then suddenly they get it and those changes are okay but we sit there and think that people’s priorities haven’t changed, that they haven’t gotten sick or that they’re never going to get sick, that they’re around and so what we have to do is figure out ways to learn when things have changed and that we are responsible in telling people when things have changed.

Cornelius:   The third common assumption is: assuming who owns or is responsible for what.

Beth:   Yes. This one comes with a lot of feelings. People have feelings about ownership and it matters to them. That’s my project, that’s my thing. Don’t mess it up. I don’t want to hand it over because they’re just going to screw it. No, mine. And so we feel so strongly that when we make assumptions around who is owning what, this gets into office politics because office politics is also feelings-driven. And now you’re getting messed up with like, who’s feeling what about the work in their assignments especially when you get down to co-managing stuff. I’m going to do this half, you do that half. My answer to that is, define ownership and partnership. Always figure it out together without your list of tasks, say, I’m doing this specific one, you’re doing that one, this one’s me, this one’s you. But do it together and define the ownership and partnership to call out those assumptions and bring it to the forefront.

Cornelius:   Number 4. Assuming people don’t know how to use technology. What about the other way around? Assuming people DO know how to use technology? Isn’t that very close to it?

Above are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only. Please subscribe to our Premium Podcast to receive a PDF transcript.

Tags: PDUs: Technical Project Management, Project Communications Management, Project Risk Management, PMI Global Congress, PMI Global Congress NA 2016, Assumptions

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Cornelius Fichtner, PMP
I'm on a polar cruise!
From June 01 - June 20 I will be on vacation.
This means that the next episode of The PM Podcast will be published after my return. Probably on June 23 or 24. Have a great month!