Communicating with Purpose: #1 of a 5-part series: Assumptions versus Clarity

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Communication Clarity: How to remove assumption from your projects

Take away the guesswork and get clear on what you’re trying to say.

Part #1 of the Communicating with Purpose Series.

This is the first of a 5-part series where I will guide you through the different elements to more effective communication. If you haven’t yet, check out the series intro article, Communicating with Purpose: The 5 elements of successful communication

Because projects are ALL about people, I see communication as one of the most, if not THE most important focus in delivering powerful and valued projects. The art of communication requires BOTH the element of receiving information AND providing information. When you’re communicating, people are involved and this means there are a number of variables which can impact this two-way exchange of information.

Without understanding what can have a negative impact on communication, you’ll find that it’s much more difficult to improve it.

Communicating clearly in order to remove assumptions is the first element of effective communication on projects.

Assumptions are the biggest cause of failed communication

When we make an assumption, it can be for a variety of reasons.

If you’re under pressure with time, budgets, resources or any other constraints, it’s natural  to draw on our previous knowledge or experience to make quick decisions and only seek clarity on the things we really don’t know about. 

The mistake of making assumptions is even more common in established project teams. With your previous experience in delivering the same thing, it’s easy to assume you know what the customer needs, that the solutions you’ve used in the past will continue to work in this new environment, or that your current offering will satisfy this customer’s needs.  

The most common assumptions made on projects

In my experience, there are a set of assumptions that are commonly made when working on a project.

These are: 

  • Expecting others to provide us the exact information we need to know without having to ask
  • People knowing what we mean when we provide information
  • We have the same definitions for the same term
  • Our instructions are understood and will be translated as we intended
  • Expecting people to tell us if they don’t understand or agree with our instructions
  • We will be supported in our mission or message
  • A directive from a key stakeholder is agreed by all other stakeholders

If you’ve made one or more of these assumptions during the course of a project, then you aren’t alone.  And when your assumptions turn out to be wrong, it can cause problems that would otherwise have been avoided.

The problem with assumptions 

Assumptions cause us to underestimate risks, overestimate success, overlook issues, misinterpret needs or requirements, and incorrectly understand instructions.

The reason they present such a problem, is because our assumptions are based on our unique set of the experiences, beliefs and opinions.

As people, we are all made up of a combination of positive and negative past experiences. We are influenced by our cultural, social, and societal beliefs. And what’s more, we have a very vast array of opinions.

When we assume, we jump to a conclusion based solely on our emotional makeup.

The only time it’s okay to make an assumption

There is a time and place for assumptions.

But this is only when we have already asked our questions and the answer is not yet known.

When a valid assumption exists, it should only be temporary and have an associated action that will allow you to clarify the assumption as soon as possible.

The importance of a RAID register.

A great place to capture and track actions to remove assumptions, is in a RAID register. RAID stands for Risks, Assumptions, Issues, and Dependencies.

A RAID register tracks each one of these project elements with a view to resolving or mitigating them so their impact on project success is either lessened or removed entirely.

You might be familiar with something called a Risk Register that was used in project delivery to manage project risks. But the project world has come to realise that assumptions, issues, and dependencies can equally impact projects if they’re left unmanaged.

If you don’t already have one, you can find a RAID template on my website.

How to avoid making project assumptions

There are two simple ways to avoid assumption.

These are to validate that the information exchanged is what was intended and to get clarity by asking questions.

Here’s how you can apply these to your project.

1. Validating the information exchanged

2. Asking more questions until there is clarity

There is a perception that when we ask too many questions it somehow makes us look less credible.

But I would challenge this by asking: if we let our stakeholders down by not asking something and failing on our commitments, how credible do we feel?

It doesn’t matter if we are new to something (or someone), or we are seasoned at it. It is critical to lead with questions.

Starting by asking questions from a blank canvas means we take everything into consideration so we can create the most effective outcome.

Up next: Communication Structure

In the next part of the Communicating with Purpose series, we’ll dive even deeper into removing assumptions, when I share my 5 practical ways to drive clarity and open the  door to richer and more informed communication.

Are you ready to level up your communication to deliver more powerful projects?

In addition to giving you the keys to effective project communication, each article in this 5-part series will suggest documented resources you can use to make sure your communication remains effective.

You’ll find a full list of Projecting with People resources in my online resources here.

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