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Project Assumptions Can Sometimes Become Risks

False assumptions can at times be real project killers, even when the assumptions are considered by some to be “small” assumptions.  Assumptions can potentially lead to an unplanned event during the project.  Many projects have gone seriously sideways when an undesirable and unmanaged event has occurred as a result of a small false assumption.   Sometimes, assumptions need to be managed as risks.

Failure to sometimes identify a small assumption as a risk can have negative impact on a projectIn 1859, William Tallman, a wealthy lawyer and abolitionist from Janesville, Wisconsin attended a speech given by a presidential candidate in Beloit, Wisconsin.  Tallman was so impressed by the speech on slavery that he invited the speaker to accompany him to his home town of Janesville to give the same speech to the local population on Saturday night.   Mr. Tallman offered to put the speaker up overnight at his recently constructed, Italianate 26 room mansion now called the Tallman House.   

The impromptu speech in Janesville went well and the speaker later retired that evening at the Tallman house, leaving his boots outside the bedroom door as was the custom in the home.   The next morning the speaker needed to catch the early train out of Janesville, but did not appear for breakfast, so Tallman sent a boy up to fetch the speaker. 

The boy knocked, and upon entering found Abraham Lincoln standing in the middle of the room fully dressed but with only blue socks with white toes on his feet.  “Haven‘t any boots...When I went to bed last night I certainly had boots...Must have em! Can‘t possibly leave this way. What‘ud people think down home?” said Lincoln.   Mr. Lincoln made the simple assumption that if he put his boots outside the bedroom door at bedtime, then they would still be there when he woke up in the morning; the assumption proved to be false.

After checking through the house, the boots were found down stairs in the rear closet, cleaned and polished by the servants.  Unfortunately, due to the confusion regarding the whereabouts of the boots, Lincoln missed the train and had to stay longer than expected in Janesville.

Recently, I became aware of a Microsoft Dynamics NAV project where a small assumption was made regarding a relatively new software add-on. The assumption was that the add-on would be easy to implement during the course of the project.  The team had no facts to substantiate their add-on implementation plan; therefore the plan was based upon an assumption. The company and team had no former experience with the add-on, and there were no independent sources the team could call upon to provide additional background on the level of implementation difficulty.

When the team implemented the add-on they ran into one problem after another; nothing went right. Ultimately, the add-on was the cause of large project variances; the entire project became severely challenged as a consequence.

What was the link between Lincoln’s boots and a Dynamics Add-on?  The common link between the two was failure to identify a simple and small assumption as a risk.  Mr. Lincoln made the assumption that his boots would still be outside the door in the morning, and the project team made the assumption that the add-on was easy to implement. Both assumptions proved to be false which lead to undesirable consequences.  Both assumptions resulted in negative events, that if managed as risks might have been mitigated or avoided.

Think about it next time you or your team makes a small assumption in a project, have you really identified and managed the risk associated with your assumption?


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