Project Step #5: List Assumptions and Constraints

Tom Armstrong
Tom Armstrong
collection of  various white note papers on white background. each one is shot separately-1

Create a list of aspects of the project that you assume to be true as well as a list of constraints that create your project's boundaries and limits. This helps to highlight possible risks to project success and enhances focus on project scope, time, and cost.

Most decisions we make are based on unexamined assumptions and constraints. Thankfully, our subconscious can guide us through most of the decisions we need to make throughout the day, but it sometimes puts us in real danger. For example, I take the subway to work and consistently see how our faith in the ability of our mind to handle the complex tasks involved in walking through a crowd has created an inaccurate assumption about our ability to walk and text at the same time.

Every day I see fellow commuters forget that we are constrained by our ability to truly focus on only one thing at a time. As a result, otherwise intelligent people walk right at me every single day. Last week, to my amazement, I saw someone cruising quickly down the sidewalk on a hover-board with his face focused downward gazing at his phone. Yeah.

An unspoken assumption here is that because we can get where we are going without really thinking about it we should be able to text while we walk (or hover). However, a very real and scientifically supported constraint is that our brains are not especially adept at handling more than one task at a time. That assumption coupled with that constraint lead us into negative risk. They are linked in a dangerous and annoying way. Because assumptions and constraints are also often linked in our projects we will examine them together in this post.

Assumptions in projects are factors that are considered to be true but have no proof of actually being true, and are yet important for the project's success. We might assume, for example, that our students' grades will increase if we improve the quality of their learning environment. While this may be proven for communities in general, there may be other factors in this specific community that must also be taken into account that might make that assumption false in this particular school's case. By differentiating between what is proven to be true and what is assumed to be true your team may uncover hidden obstacles or potential opportunities that you might otherwise have missed.

Constraints are limiting factors, both internal and external to the project team, that impact the execution of the project. Constraints are usually out of the project team's control. Chancellor's regulations are important constraints to document and keep in mind. Cultural or environmental factors can also be constraints as can geographical limitations, time, resources, etc.

Take some time with your team to create two separate lists. One for your high-level assumptions and the other for your high-level constraints. This exercise will help you to refine the scope of your project and create insights into potential positive and negative risks when it comes time to execute your plan.

One more thought. Working in schools generally means partnering with multiple organizations. Each organization has its own projects and each of their projects come with their own assumptions and constraints. This creates an environment in which multiple grants and projects are likely to have competing constraints. One way to avoid the drama that competing constraints can introduce into your partnerships, ask the other organizations about their constraints ahead of time and be sure to communicate yours. This way you can take their constraints into account when making decisions that might otherwise create friction in your relationship. If, for example, they need a SACC license and you don't you will both have very different needs that will affect the way you interact and compete for resources.

Your project will impact individuals and groups. Individuals and groups will also impact your project. We are talking about your stakeholders. The next blog in this series focuses on how to take their needs and considerations into account to make the most out of your project.

To read the previous posts in this series, please click on the links below:

Introductory Post: 25 Steps to Small Project Success

Project Step #1: Create a Problem Statement

Project Step #2: Create a Vision Statement

Project Step #3: Create a Mission Statement

Project Step #4: List Milestones

"Project Step #5: List Assumptions and Constraints" by Tom Armstrong, 2016.

Originally published on LinkedIn.

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Tom Armstrong

By Tom Armstrong

Tom Armstrong started with The Leadership Program in 2007 as a trainer teaching leadership skills through the art of percussion. As a professional musician, Tom quickly found that his love for teaching was not limited to percussion. Fascinated by the idea of using the arts as a way to engage youth and adults, Tom began teaching leadership concepts through the arts and grew in the organization to his current position as Senior Director of Programming. He now oversees the successful implementation of programming for over one hundred schools. As a Project Management Professional, Tom also applies his expertise in project management to help businesses achieve their benchmarks for success in all areas of effective management and corporate culture building.