If you were to poll project managers on which software tool (aside from email) they use most often, for the largest number of tasks, I imagine that Excel would predominate. From complex calculator to data analyzer to zero-effort database and factoid organizer, I doubt there is a more ubiquitous multi-tool. And yet, we sometimes use it in ways that inhibit our understanding of the problems we’re trying to solve. One example that comes to mind is a spreadsheet template we used in a former life, called a “RAID log.”
The spreadsheet had four tabs: Risks, Assumptions, Issues, and Decisions. Each tab had columns defined that would drive identification and management of their namesakes. In and of itself, it was an excellent starting point. But the sequencing that made the template name pronounceable hid the complex relationships among the four objects. And that probably caused more than a few problems along the way.
Most projects begin with a limited number of facts, or “knowns,” and a by-product of the project is to expand that knowledge base. But at the beginning, a lot of assumptions are needed to fill in the gaps. These assumptions help us better visualize the current state, the desired future state, and the space between. With assumptions, we can make plans and estimates, communicate and collaborate, and otherwise act on those things we know to be facts. Consequently, all projects begin with a set of assumptions.
That said: every assumption carries some amount of uncertainty. Because we depend on assumptions to proceed with our work, and that uncertainty is present, each assumption represents a source of risk. Of course, not all assumptions are foundational, and few will be purely wild-assed guesses, but one of our process goals in every project should be to verify every assumption. To do this, every assumption should be documented and referenced when used in estimates, plans, schedules, budgets, and any other project activity.
Whether the goal is to correct a problem, develop a new capability, or comply with some external requirement, projects are approved to address issues. If the status quo were acceptable, no one would spend money to change it. On many projects, the project is an umbrella for the resolution of all sorts of issues. As you explore the project scope for details, more issues will emerge, and some of your assumptions will be challenged. This is a good thing: solving the wrong problem won’t get you any points. You might discover some issues can be resolved along the way, while others depend on the outcome of the project. Persistent issues frequently have roots in an earlier solution, and it’s common for them to be well-documented. So capture that content in your project issue log.
Once you transition to the execution of your project, more issues will manifest, especially as you make changes or consume scarce resources (like the time and attention of your stakeholders). On some projects, tracking and resolving issues becomes the key to making progress. The old adage about being up to your ass in alligators speaks volumes about the potential for creating new problems while trying to solve old ones.
A risk is an uncertainty that matters. As noted, every assumption has an element of uncertainty, and every issue matters. Consequently, a review of assumptions and issues logs should give you a starting point in identifying risks. If an assumption is incorrect, what are the consequences? What is the likelihood of resolving one issue, only to create a new one? In reviewing the plan, identifying risks isn’t just about understanding the proposed solution, but the current state.
As Tim Lister so famously said, “Risk management is how adults manage projects.” Tracking risks, from identification to analysis to action to retirement, is one of the keys to a successful project. Once you understand both the risks and the issues, you can select better risk responses. Being able to link risks to assumptions, and to both the issues that made them worth taking and the issues that they might become, will help you keep preventive and corrective actions from falling through the cracks.
The most expensive part of any project is indecision. Many decisions are the leverage needed to resolve issues; others drive risk responses. Still others change or confirm assumptions. Many schedule delays can be attributed to the failure to make a timely decision, or the failure to communicate a decision once made. Once the need for a decision is identified, whether to resolve an issue, manage a risk, or just eliminate alternatives, it should be logged. Allowing a pending decision to drag on too long is an impediment to the project, and to the business of the organization. A review of the decision log for pending items should be part of every steering committee meeting.
The relationships among assumptions, issues, risks, and decisions are complex, and somewhat recursive. Tracking them is not a chore to be done once and then checked off the to-do list. Taken together, they are the background (and sometimes foreground) of every project. Understanding how they interact can be critical to keeping your project on track. So if you use a spreadsheet like our old RAID log, be sure to use it wisely.