Assumptions, Projects and Learning

 The Learning Organization

We are developing an online class at Value Transformation titled Learning Organization and Project Management.  In this class we wed the discipline of project management with the learning organization and motivation.  As we work and develop the material we consider opportunities that are available for an organization to grow and become more capable through the talent growth.  We are talking about an organization level learning, the process of creating, retaining and transferring knowledge throughout the enterprise making the organization more capable.  One of the topics often glossed over in project management and the organization learning discussions are assumptions.

The Old Saying about Assume

My dad was in the military, so I know the obvious saying that goes with the word assume.  Since this is so cliché I prefer not to use that here, but will only say that making assumptions ends poorly for everybody – or so says the saying.


Personally, most assumptions I make are either based upon experience or playing out the scenario in my head thinking not only at the immediate detail level, but from a systems perspective.  This is done by thinking forward, what past experiences can help me make sense of this situation that I can bring to bear to allow me to predict or estimate for example.  Project teams work though these every day.  Wide Band Delphi and Planning Poker both work to understand underlying assumptions as part of the process.  The team members or experts make their estimates, after which we discuss the reasons for any disparity of estimates by asking why somebody answered the way they did, thus starting a discussion about the assumptions and perspectives that influenced their answer.

 Assumptions Unsaid

Unarticulated assumptions do not put the project team in a position to clarify or establish the veracity of the assumption in context of this project.  Unchallenged assumptions are nearly as bad as unarticulated.  A team that is not in a position to set up an experiment, investigation, or provide additional supporting or contrasting perspective are not in a position to learn about the assumption.  Unarticulated and unchallenged assumptions therefore are not much different and likely end the same way.  We have learned nothing about the validity of the underlying assumptions.  We may learn something in retrospect as we miss an opportunity or worse make a disaster of our project.

 Assume Conclusion

Assumptions are not the problem in and of themselves.  Left unarticulated or critiqued for validity, we can find our team going off in a poor direction based upon assumptions of which the most of the team were unaware.  The mere discussing assumptions aides organization learning by providing an interaction over a perspective held by some portion of the team.  These various perspectives can help determine if the assumption is valid in this instance, or perhaps find reasons why in this case the assumption is errant.  The discourse and the sharing of perspectives are part of the learning organization, a concept developed by Peter Senge and his colleagues in the book The Fifth Discipline.

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