Identifying Project Assumptions and Constraints

Assumptions and constraints show up frequently on our projects. Successful project managers and business analysts keep an eye out for the assumptions and constraints present on their projects.  After all, they can impact your project across a number of variables, including your project requirements and your resulting solution.  Giving the risks that assumptions and constraints can add to your project, I think it’s worth taking a closer look at what they are and how we should identify and manage them.

People make assumptions about things that they believe to be true every day. When was the last time that you left the house headed out to do your errands and calculated the time it would take to get those errands done based upon your assumptions for what you needed to do, where you were stopping and what traffic would be like along the way? Of course, there was always the risk that you would get those errands done in more time than you planned if the order of stops, what you did at each stop and the traffic did not behave as you assumed it would behave.

In comparison, constraints are fixed boundary conditions or limits on what you can do.  Going back to the morning errands example, you may find yourself constrained by the speed limits on the road you are traveling, the hours that the stores are open and the particular products that you can find in any given store.  In this example, constraints are the things you cannot change but that you need to be aware of and manage to.

Experienced project managers look for three elements as they and the team define, analyze, and document the assumptions and constraints on their project: assumptions, business constraints and technical constraints.  Let’s have a closer look at each of these elements.

Assumptions.  Assumptions are factors that we believe to be true, although these factors are not confirmed to be true. Assumptions add risk to a project since it is possible that they will turn out to be false. Assumptions can impact any part of your project life cycle and resulting solution implementation, so it is important to document and analyze them.

Business constraints. Business constraints limit the solution based upon the current organizational state. They usually focus on the available time, money and resources for a project. Common business constraints include budget and time restrictions, resource limitations, and resource skill limitations. For example, your project’s business case may contain assumptions about realizing the business benefits for your project. Any assumptions about a specific business benefit should be documented and linked to the requirements that will deliver those benefits. This may introduce additional risk into the premises contained in the business case, since it is possible that the assumptions you are assuming to be true may not be true in the end.

Technical constraints. Technical constraints often focus on architecture decisions that limit your solution design. They tend to be inflexible and unchanging, and can have an impact on your solution implementation. They include areas such as development languages, hardware, other infrastructure, and software that must be used for your project.

The assumptions and constraints are an important aspect of your project requirements.  You need to make sure that you analyze and document them appropriately on your projects. Although they are not requirements, I often recommend documenting them along with the requirements that they impact. It is a simple step to manage and communicate the requirements assumptions and constraints once you have them identified and documented.  You may also identify new project risks related to your project’s assumptions and constraints that need to be added to your risk register.

Remember, any project stakeholder may be involved with identifying and defining the assumptions and constraints for your project, so keep your ears open!  The project team should use these assumptions and constraints to identify potential risks that may impact project implementation and delivery or have a negative impact on end-user expectations of the resulting solution.  It is essential to keep a handle on the assumptions and constraints that are part of your project.

Susan Weese

Learning Tree is currently offering complimentary online courses on Project Management. Sign up to attend the next session for April 16th.

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