Posted by: projectsinpractice | June 10, 2012

The Trouble with Assumptions

Bonnie here: I was writing about assumptions for a project management training course and struggling to think of a good example. Fast forward to the first day of my vacation and I now have a great example of an assumption and the trouble it can cause.

suitcasesWith two flights, an overnight en route, immigration, and customs, I opted for carry-on luggage. No baggage fees and faster all around. So I assumed.

At the entrance to the jetway, the attendant handed me a gate check tag. I attached the tag to my roller bag, placed it on the cart, and got on the plane without another thought. Why didn’t I take the ticket stub when I have done that on every flight I’ve been on for the past 40 years? I suppose I was still in my carry-on mindset and trying to slip into a holiday state of mind. I subconsciously assumed the bag was traveling a mere 50 feet from the cart to the belly of the plane and then, in Toronto, would travel another 50 feet from the belly of the plane to my waiting hand on a different jetway.

A few hours later, the baggage handler finished tossing gate-checked bags onto the jetway and I stood there with a disappointed look on my face instead of a roller bag handle in my hand.

I headed for the baggage carousel. Maybe the bag got mixed in with the checked bags. Nope. My only consolation was that several other people were missing luggage as well. Visions of X-Files-esque conspiracies arose. Hmmm. Maybe the airline came up with a different solution to the weight restriction problem they had on the flight…Pull a passenger off or temporarily inconvenience a few passengers with delayed luggage? Whatever.

As I spoke to the airline folks and filled out a form, I kicked myself about my erroneous assumption. Each person I spoke to asked for the gate check stub. When I admitted I didn’t have it, these people shared the same reaction – a slow, sad shake of the head accompanied by a quiet “That’s going to make it tough.” I felt like an idiot. Then, I wondered whether I had an ID tag on the bag.

At the Toronto airport, this disaster cost about an hour and a half. More annoying, I’m on a rare vacation, yet I’m in project manager mode. What do I need to buy? I can change plans and rent a car so it’s easier to shop. I’ll have to go shopping for clothes so it’s going to take more time and cost money—and I HATE to shop. If the bag stays lost, it’ll cost me even more time and money to replace those items.

What makes assumptions so dangerous is that they lull us into thinking things are fine when they might not be; or lead us to believe that we should proceed one way when we should go the other. In many cases, the assumptions and subsequent choices pass by in a moment, so we don’t even realize that there is something to consider.

  • What can we do to identify assumptions and get them out in the open?
  • Pay attention.
  • Ask questions.
  • What’s happening?
  • Are there other ways to look at the situation?
  • How do you see this process working?
  • How about you?
  • And you?
  • Has something changed?
  • Do my plans still make sense?
  • What are the risks?
  • Are there consequences?

Luckily, this story has a happy ending. When I arrived, I was ready with a list and set to buy a bare minimum to see me through the week. But first, I had to file a delayed baggage report in tropical paradise. As I walked toward the baggage folks, my eyes caught on before my brain. There, waiting with several other bags, was my wayward roller bag with a RUSH tag attached. Now, if only I could find out if Sculley and Mulder had anything to do with the reunion.

Talk back: What methods do you use to uncover assumptions? Did any sneak through despite your best efforts? What did you learn from those situations?



  1. Oh, how I have had similar experiences on vacation. Mine usually are with digital data on a cell phone that I can no longer buy a charger for (planned obsolecence SUX!), and cell phone with dead battery. I have re-learned that paper copies of important info are STILL important.

  2. I unfortunately uncover a lot of my assumptions with my cell phone when I’m out of service range, and I don’t remember anyone’s phone number anymore, and my battery is dead.
    This kind of situation reminds me that the note-taking itself is important, and that the reliability of electronic data we now assume in urban areas is NOT infallible, and that the on-demand data environment we’re in STILL needs viable backup solutions, sometimes as simple as a paper printout.

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