Whether there’s a legitimate benefit or merely a placebo effect at work, there does appear to be some correlation between having had a flu shot and avoiding or at least reducing the severity of respiratory viruses. There are, of course, a multitude of other proven and unproven preventative measures including a good night’s sleep, frequently washing hands and (if you really want to make a fashion statement!) wearing masks over one’s mouth & nose.
Similarly, in project management, there are a number of preventative measures available to us to avoid unpleasant surprises. The whole risk management knowledge area could be thought of as a major preventative measure as it helps us to better manage the unknown. Stakeholder analysis and management processes are also heavily focused on prevention of future issues.
A lesser applied practice is assumptions analysis.
Uncertainty is an intrinsic part of projects and yet, when we define approaches, derive estimates or develop plans, we are doing so with this uncertainty present. If we wanted to plan our projects with full certainty, we would never complete any projects. Hence, in the absence of total clarity, assumptions get made.
While it is bad enough to provide a single-value estimate without presenting some idea of potential variation, it is worse to do so without providing the underlying assumptions which support that estimate. Similar, when picking an approach to meet project scope, there are usually multiple options considered and assumptions are likely made which would guide which option gets recommended.
Assumptions by themselves are not bad. However, if we don’t document them and then fail to analyze and validate them, we run the risk of executing a theoretical plan which does not reflect reality.
On the other hand, if we regularly review & validate key assumptions, we might just buy ourselves the lead time needed to take corrective action to avoid the impacts of variances between we had previously assumed and what is real. Furthermore, while we might consider disproven assumptions as being a source of future project issues, they could just as easily provide us with opportunities which could be exploited if we get sufficient lead time.
Assumptions analysis is a key input into risk identification, but it could also be performed independently as a routine preventative activity. If you are maintaining an Assumptions Log for your project, you could dust it off every few weeks over the life of your project and validate that core assumptions are still valid during regular project team meetings.
An ounce of assumptions analysis might save you a pound of firefighting!