Assumptions Are a Necessary Evil

In over 27 years, I have never experienced a major problem on a systems implementation that did not begin with an assumption.

“Of course they can do it; they have a ton of experience.”
“Of course the development servers are being backed up.”
“Of course the new system can do that; it’s a tier 1 ERP- how can it not do it?”
“Of course there’s a compatible upgrade path; the vendor’s web site said so.”

Yeah, well, not always.

Fear the statement that begins, “Of course…”. From a handy web dictionary, assumption is defined as “A thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.”

So, assumptions are bad and should be eliminated. If you get rid of all assumptions, then you are good to go, right?

Yeah, well, not always.

Why? Because eliminating all assumptions takes time. It takes a lot of time and costs a ton of money.

Consider a project to select a new ERP system. A well architected project that includes a good process and the right level of participation from the right people generally takes six months for an average mid-sized manufacturer. If you hit that schedule, you have made a lot of assumptions, whether you know it or not. Why? Because if you try to eliminate every possible assumption, that same selection project would take years, if it could even be finished at all.

The pace of change within your technology environment, much less your business, as well as the tools you are considering, turns a nicely bounded selection project into a fruitless attempt to match your knowledge and certainty to things that are constantly evolving. There would be no end point in that scenario. By the time you have eliminated all assumptions, the people and technology have evolved from underneath all your hard-won knowledge.

So, we have a conundrum: if you make assumptions, you will screw up; yet if you don’t make assumptions, you cannot proceed. Your options appear to be limited. Certainly, there are situations that require eliminating all assumptions – I’m thinking here of building a space shuttle. But if you aren’t shooting for the moon with your project, what do you do?

You must make assumptions to move you forward, while balancing against overall risk. You may never get to the point where you make assumption your ally, but you can at least reach a cautious neutrality with them.

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