Few projects begin with absolute certainty. If we had to wait for absolute certainty, most projects would never get off the ground.
As projects are planned and executed, some facts and issues are known, others must be estimated. Estimation is an art, with many fine points to finesse between certainty and wishful thinking. You can't just hope you have the resources you need to do the job, and you can't wait until every resource is available to begin. You have to manage and mitigate using informed assumptions and constraints.
Assumptions and constraints form the basis for project planning, filling in the gaps between known proven facts and total guesswork. Each assumption is an "educated guess", a likely condition, circumstance or event, presumed known and true in the absence of absolute certainty. Each constraint is a limiting condition, circumstance or event, setting boundaries for the project process and expected results. Once identified, these assumptions and constraints shape a project in specific, but diverging ways. Assumptions bring possibilities, and constraints bring limits. As such, as the project begins, assumptions and constraints must be defined for one or more of the following elements:
Identify and Challenge - As assumptions are identified, each must be viewed with an appropriate degree of skepticism. Assumptions cannot be mere guesswork or wishful thinking.
Evaluate - Analyze according to confidence level (i.e. How confident are you that this assumption will be proven correct?), followed by a related "if-then" risk counterpart analysis (i.e. If this assumption is proven incorrect, what will be the likely consequences for the project?).
In contrast, constraints must be evaluated from a short term perspective, according to immediate impact - i.e. How does a given constraint limit or refine the project in one or more respects? For example, product availability constraints can impact multiple elements of a single project. Product delays can elongate the project schedule, add to costs, and negatively impact resource availability. As constraints are assessed, all points of impact must be determined.
Incorporate - Assumptions, combined with known facts, will drive the formation of the project plan, providing the actionable basis (albeit with varying degrees of certainty) for planned tasks, schedules, budgets and resource assignments.
Unidentified constraints will not just disappear, they will likely pop up at some later point as full fledged project problems. Consider this example: You are working on a project where specialized technical skills are required. You estimate that these specialized resources will be required for (40) hours per week during the month of June, and you prepare your project plan based on this assumption. However, you fail to account for the fact that these resources will only be available for (20) hours per week in the month of June. Initially, this resource limitation was a constraint, but since it was not identified at the outset, once June rolls around, it becomes a major problem.
Control - As the project evolves, assumptions will be proven true or untrue. Changing circumstances may eliminate or modify previously identified constraints. In either case, you must be prepared to react, with contingencies, workarounds and modifications to plans and deliverables.
Review - To evaluate all steps taken for identification, assessment, incorporation and control.
From project initiation through closure, established assumptions and known constraints set the stage for project planning and execution. As the project proceeds, assumptions and constraints will be used to define and shape tasks, schedules, resource assignments and budget allocations. In this manner, each identified assumption and existing constraint forms a framework to be used to manage an otherwise uncertain future, laying out a roadmap for how the project will proceed.
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