Project assumptions will be essential to making quick progress, especially in uncertain environments where you’re treading into uncharted land.

The dictionary definition of an assumption tells you: “a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof”. Other words suggested include “guess”, “thought”, “theory”, “hypothesis” and “suspicion”.

I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage. “You should never assume, because when you ASSUME, you make an ASS of “U” and “ME” (The Odd Couple, 1973). Well, I love this phrase – both for the wit and the meaning behind it. The only caveat that I’d add when considering in the context of running a retail project, is that you DO need to make them.

Use Project Assumptions to Combat Procrastination

At the start of a project, there are many unknowns. This can lead to procrastination, excessive navel gazing and wasted time. What you need at this stage is to firm up some of these unknowns. Retail projects need to run at a fast pace given the environment and competitive nature of the industry (read more about what makes retail projects different). Therefore, you don’t have time to wait around because you don’t KNOW the answers to important questions yet. The quickest way of doing this is to make an assumption about your project, your organisation, your customers or your industry.

Through leading and managing a variety of retail operations projects and programmes, I’ve found the key to making quick progress is through making assumptions. This is especially true early on in your change initiative. Project assumptions are things that you believe to be true. Not truths. Or at least not yet.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

However, you can’t forget the old adage. Using assumptions does leave you with the opportunity to make an “ass” of all involved. There are 3 common mistakes that project managers can make with their project assumptions:

  1. Not even realising that you’re making them.
  2. Keeping them to yourself and not sharing them with others.
  3. Never testing or validating them.

What happens if you do make these mistakes?

Incorrect project assumptions will lead to incorrect decision making about the future of your project.

You’ll find yourself not being clear on your stakeholder and customer expectations. In turn, you’ll find yourself missing their true expectations.

You could find yourself running into problems throughout your project. Especially when you come to launching to a wider audience – which is just when you need your project to be strong and resilient.

That’s not all – there will be plenty of wasted time and money along the way as well as significant impact to your project benefits. In turn, these will all significantly impact the likelihood of success.


How You Should Use Project Assumptions Effectively

Despite the risks, you should still use assumptions to ‘fill in the blanks’ in the earlier stages of your project.

Make sure that you share them with others regularly. This will allow your stakeholders to help validate and adjust them. You also need to understand what assumptions other people are making about your project. Don’t underestimate how tricky this can be. There will be “truths” that people commit to without realising. Part of your role will be to pull these out and they can then be shared with others.

By sharing, you may also find conflicting assumptions people are using. It’s better to find these as early as you can so that the project team can align on the best “assumed truth” and then go about checking it.

You will need to assess what the impact could be if each of your assumptions is incorrect. If you’re using an assumption that makes a fundamental shift to the future direction of your project, it’s going to be essential to get this 100% right. If not, you’ll be running with a big risk and in turn a potentially big impact to your project.

As time goes by, you’ll need to revisit each assumption to test, validate and refine. Finally, you will need to adjust direction if you find that the assumptions that you’ve been working to were incorrect.

Building a framework to manage project assumptions

Having a way of effectively manage project assumptions will be key to your success as a retail project manager. As a result, it is one of the elements that the Retail Project Manager Success course covers, giving you a process to put into place and make sure you’re managing your projects to a successful conclusion.

I’m currently redesigning the course based on feedback from the pilot that ran last year- it’s going to be relaunched shortly. So, for a limited time only, you can pick up the step by step guide to project assumptions that will be a download for one of the lessons in the course.

project management expert Oliver BanksAbout the Author

Oliver Banks is an expert at delivering retail change projects and programmes. He’s tried a number of different techniques over his 13 years of working on different types and sizes of projects. He blends classic project management techniques from PRINCE2, PMBOK and Lean Six Sigma with a dose of pragmatism and business reality to ensure retail projects are led, managed and delivered successfully.


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