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Early in my project management career, I was thrown into a tough project when the senior project manager left the role. Every time we thought we had delivered the final list of work to the client, what we handed over resulted in another list of amendments.

The project had two unaligned assumptions that were causing the issues; the client assumed we knew what they were talking about, and we assumed we understood the client’s requirements. We didn't hit the mark until we started asking clean, clarifying questions to remove project assumptions and get true understanding on both sides.

What Are Project Assumptions?

Project assumptions are aspects or factors in the project that are considered to be true or real, or where an educated guess has been made. You might make assumptions consciously or subconsciously.

These assumptions happen because we believe that other people know what we know, be that about a project, its drivers, or even about specific skills. 

One type of assumption is where we don’t have all the information, but we’re pretty sure about the way forward. An example of this is we might assume that the payment gateway has an API we can use to integrate with our client’s online store. It’s a fair assumption in the modern day that they will have APIs available. 

These types of assumptions are usually identified early on and added to one or more of a:

The other type of project assumption, assumptions in communication, can be a bit more elusive and tricky to spot.

What makes these assumptions more challenging is they happen on both sides of the project, supplier side and client side, and they are often made subconsciously. For example, your client or key stakeholder might assume a particular feature was obvious and so they didn’t think to ask you for it.

Note: These communication strategies in project management can help reduce assumptions as well.

Why Are Project Assumptions Important?

Project assumptions are important because they can introduce a lot of potential risk to your project. As a project manager, you are constantly on the lookout for project risks and creating contingency plans for them, as you are the protector of project scope, budget, and project timeline or project schedule. Assumptions are the ninjas of the risk world; they often slip in unseen and disappear without a trace after the damage has been done. 

Assumptions lead to misunderstandings, which can severely derail your project or cause scope creep. If you haven’t understood what needs to be delivered and made assumptions instead, you will finish the work and hand it over to be met with the dreaded “that’s not what I asked for”. All of this causes you to adjust your plan and do that piece of work again, costing you time and draining your project budget. 

There is an upside to this. Once you are aware of these types of assumptions, you will find them popping up all over the place, even outside of the project planning process or workflow, which is where you’ll usually uncover most project assumptions.

Their hidden nature is no longer as hidden, which means you can reduce their potential impact and challenge them, at any point in the project life cycle, before they cause problems.

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How To Challenge Project Assumptions

You can address project assumptions by asking the right questions. I see questions as serving two functions in this context: 

  1. They help us gather more information
  2. They get people thinking differently, giving birth to new revelations

Questions are the only way to challenge and remove assumptions effectively. I like to take Stephen Covey’s approach from his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. 

Sometimes it may seem like you are asking too many questions or questions that seem like they have an obvious answer, but you must seek first to understand before you can create a plan that is to be understood.

Gathering Information

The purpose of a question is to gain more understanding. In terms of tackling assumptions, this is where you are asking for clarification. You can expect more fine details as you drill down from high level statements. 

Eventually, if you ask enough questions, the person you are asking will start to either repeat themselves or be unable to answer. This is how you know you have gained all the information that they have available to them.

Changing Thinking

This reason for questions might be more alien to some, but it’s very useful for opening people up to assumptions they are making and which they are unaware of. 

These questions tend to be more artfully vague than those used to gain information, as they are designed to make people stop and think. Usually when you use questions to change thinking, you want the person answering to stop for a moment. This is how you know they are having to search for the answer and have therefore changed their thinking about the topic in question.

Managing Project Assumptions With Questions

You need to be mindful when asking questions as they can be a double edged sword. If you are not taking care, you could end up making further assumptions by asking what the coaching world would call an unclean question.  

“I understand you mean a call to action that links to your shop when pressed?” 

This is a great example of an unclean question. We have inserted our interpretation of the request rather than clarifying it. It is also asked in a way that is leading to a yes or no answer. If in this case the client answers yes, you could end up with different assumptions about the functionality, such as: 

  • Whether the link opens in a new tab
  • Whether the link goes to the homepage of the shop or to a specific landing page
  • Whether the styling will be the same as the other call to actions on the website
  • Where it is going to be placed

We want to be asking clean questions that are free of bias and leading statements. For the above example, a better question would be something like: 

“Can you explain to me the step by step user journey that you envisage, starting from a customer visiting your website to reaching your online store using this call to action?”

Here’s how to craft questions so the right meaning comes across.

Questions To Challenge Your Assumptions

You will notice more assumptions as your awareness is focused on them. Even so it is often worth starting with questions to yourself.

  • Ask yourself: what are you assuming about this request? You can go further by asking if the request can be interpreted in a different way. Understand what assumptions are in the request and then craft your questions to gain detail. Be clear and specific. Try to stick to who, what, where, when, why, and how style questions, and avoid those such as: did you mean, is it something like, etc. 
  • Ask one question at a time. If you get stuck on whether a question is clean or not, check to see if you are presenting a solution. Unclean questions contain answers, so if it can be answered with a yes or a no, it is potentially unclean unless it is highly specific e.g. “Is the hex code for the color you want #1E4BF5”.

Gaining additional details in this way challenges your assumptions by removing them from your questions and helping you understand more about the request. This applies to both assumptions that you are making and those that the request asks you to make because there is not enough detail.

Questions To Challenge Their Assumptions

Structuring a question that challenges another’s assumptions will be more open than the above. It is still important to keep these questions clean, but it is hard to be specific as you don’t necessarily know what assumptions they are making. These questions tend to be more broad such as “is there anything else that you haven’t already mentioned which you feel is important for us to know?”. 

Keep these questions open and vague in the sense that you are not directing the answer. In the question above we are not suggesting any way of how to answer or on what information to provide. You can always follow up with more specific questions to challenge your assumptions about their answer if needed. 

Asking broad, open questions gives the other person pause to consider their answer, and will often lead to them disclosing information that they previously didn’t think to tell you. 

Examples of Project Assumptions & Questions To Challenge Them

Here are some examples of project assumptions alongside good questions to use to challenge those assumptions. I find it to be good practice to have a few questions queued up that fit your subject area so you can draw on them whenever needed. 

  1. Assumption: Your client wants to create a landing page that will drive customers to their new product page. A good question to challenge this is: Will you talk me through each step you want customers to take to get to the new page? This is a direct question aimed at eliminating assumptions you might have about your client’s thought processes on their user journey.
  2. Assumption: The client’s customers are unable to find their new product page and need navigation help. To challenge this assumption, you might ask this question: Can you explain the reason customers need an additional navigation link and what you aim to achieve? This will challenge assumptions around the problem that customers are facing and the benefits of your solution.
  3. Assumption: The client has decided on this solution after considering all possible solutions. Good questions for this assumption are: Are there any alternative options that might achieve the same outcome? Are there any more benefits we could achieve from this other approach? This question is designed to open up their thinking and reconsider restrictive assumptions they have made that have created a risk of missing out on greater benefits.
  4. Assumption: The client has considered their own assumptions about the solution and is factoring them in. A good question here is: Is there anything you're assuming which has brought you to this solution? Sometimes this direct approach can work with clients who are open to challenges and thinking differently. I have used it to challenge the project delivery approach with project team members. It’s effective at unearthing assumptions and sparking new conversation around solutions to problems.

What's Next?

Want to know what techniques other project managers are using to bust assumptions and stop scope creep? Become a DPM member and join the conversation in Slack with 100s of other digital project managers! You’ll also get access to 100+ templates, samples, and examples of project documents, which will save you time and increase your chances of project success.

By Joshua Robhes

I’m Joshua Robhes, a Coach and Leader in Change and Project Management with over 10 years experience in helping people and businesses transform. I specialize in custom web builds, software development and the people element of projects and change and I have worked across the Social Housing, Government, Hospitality and Financial sectors.