Test Your Assumptions

Library projects often focus a lot on risks as this is often what stakeholders are most concerned about. But it is also good to test assumptions.

How do risks differ from assumptions?

Risks are the likelihood that something will or will not happen. They are measured by their probability (what is the likelihood that this event will occur?) and impact (what impact will it have if it does occur?). For example, it is unlikely that this piece of equipment will malfunction but if it does it will have a huge impact on the success of the project.

An assumption is something we take for granted. It is something we often cannot establish as true but is more than likely to be true. If it isn’t true, then a plan needs to be in place to manage the risk of this.

We can rate assumptions but we need to use a different set of parameters. There are three key parameters for assumptions.

  • Confidence. How sure are we that the assumption is true?
  • Lead time. How long before we can prove or disprove the assumption?
  • Impact. If the assumption proves incorrect, how much rework is involved?

One issue that I encountered at the beginning of a collection relocation project was an assumption that the floor we were moving the collection onto could carry the weight of the collection, ie the new weight would be within its load-bearing capacity. This was a reasonable assumption as libraries are often built with high load-bearing capacity floors.

So with the assumption stated in the project charter, it was the library management’s responsibility to test whether this assumption was true or not. After discussions with facilities management and the engineering faculty it was determined that there was no record of the load-bearing capacity and to get this would cost at least $3000. A cost the library wasn’t prepared to bear for this project.

So what were we to do? What would you do?

We decided to incorporate an evaluation of the collection into the project. We would determine which resources were not being used, and see if we could reduce the size of the collection so there was no additional weight on the floor and eliminate the risk of the floor collapsing altogether.

This didn’t change our project charter. But it did alter how we were going to achieve it. If we hadn’t challenged this assumption, we would more than likely have accepted it as fact, which could have resulted in dire consequences!

Assumptions are often so obvious that we overlook them. However they can have the same devastating impact on your projects as risks. Are you testing your assumptions in your library projects?

A version of this article appeared in Library Life: Te Rau Ora, 19  June 2012.

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