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SPARTA Trip: ASSUME (the position)

Shot At one client site, there was another project manager who was working on an imaging system implementation.  Most of the imaging infrastructure was outsourced to the vendor, and the project manager was there to ensure that the requirements and standards were in place and that the data structure was ready to interface with the new imaging system once it was installed.

One day, the vendor called the project manager with a very pertinent question:  What version of Oracle (the database at that client site) would be in use at the time of implementation?  The client was currently on Oracle version 7, and the imaging vendor wanted to know if they would be upgraded to Oracle version 8 by the time the imaging system was installed six months into the future.  The project manager hunted down the first "techie database dude" (I believe that was his actual job title) and asked him which version of Oracle they would be on in six months.  He did not tell Techie Database Dude why he wanted to know, nor did he mention any pertinent information about his inquiry.  Being a somewhat confident and self-assured individual (which sounds better than arrogant and cocky), Techie Database Dude ensured our project manager that they would be upgraded to Oracle 8 in six months.  Project manager then informed imaging vendor of that piece of news.  He never wrote it down anywhere.  He never informed anybody else that these conversations took place.

The project progressed in green status for the next six months, both sides moving toward a smooth implementation.  Then the imaging vendor showed up, ready to install.  Guess what version of Oracle the client was using for their database?  The project went from status green to status red (bright flaming red with fire engine sirens blaring in the background) overnight.  Executives were livid.  And the project manager had egg on his face.  Lesson Learned:

Undocumented assumptions reincarnate as excuses

It may seem like a mundane task, but when you are in project recovery mode, ensuring that everybody's ASSUMPTIONS (the first 'A' in SPARTA) are laid out on the table before you venture into recovery execution is critical.  People already have a lot of assumptions (many of them unspoken) about why the project failed in the first place.  Analyze them.  Debate them.  Document them.  Use them as a springboard to identify project risks.  Revisit them often.  Undocumented assumptions are killers, and will have you backpeddling with excuses faster than a politician caught with his hand in the cookie jar.  A violated (and undocumented) assumption, as our earlier project manager friend can attest, will put you in a very uncomfortable position.

NOTE:  Facilitating a "risks and assumptions" identification meeting is very challenging.  Many people do not want to vocalize these things... some out of ignorance, some out of fear, some out of a malicious desire to see the project fail again.  I'll discuss this in a future post.  For now, Glen Alleman of Herding Cats has a great post on a one-minute risk assessment that can be easily extrapolated to assumptions.

ANOTHER NOTE:  None of the processes within SPARTA need to be treated linearly.  If you want to delay assumptions until after the recovery plan is laid out, or if you want to document assumptions over the lifespan of your recovery effort, that is great.  Whenever you decide the time is right, then do it.

FINAL NOTE:  When writing assumptions, I encourage project teams to write them as positive statements rather than negative statements (which I save for risks).  Examples:

  • "We assume all resources will have the correct skill sets and be available as needed (per the project plan)" as opposed to "We assume we won't lose critical resources"
  • "We assume the technology is compatible with our infrastruture" as opposed to "We assume nothing will break"

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