Friday, June 22, 2012

Documenting Assumptions

When estimating and planning a project, we're often told to "document our assumptions." It certainly sounds reasonable enough, and indeed is a very important document to create. For example, if there's a requirement that users can "upload forms" to a web application, and that requirement isn't any more specific than that, then I'm going to write down a few assumptions about that requirement. I'm going to assume that the "forms" are static files (such as Word or PDF). I'm going to assume that no validation will be performed and that the files will simply be saved as-is for a person to review them. I'm going to assume that the application isn't providing the users with these files and that they're just something the user has. And so on.

Are these all of my assumptions? No, not at all. They're just the ones that I wrote down in the document.

The problem with "documenting your assumptions" arises when the document is referenced, not when it is created. It's referenced if and when something goes wrong in some way and we need to look back at our paper trail to figure out whose fault it is. (Which, when I put it that way, seems kind of... unproductive.) That's because it's a document which serves no other purpose than to cover the asses of everyone involved. It's created because we all know that something will come up during the course of the project that wasn't foreseen, and we want a paper trail indicating that it's not our fault.

And so it leads to the inevitable response... "This isn't in your documented assumptions." That's a cop-out, plain and simple. And it's a cop-out because "documenting your assumptions" is an unreasonable task. It's not unreasonable in the sense that we shouldn't do it. As I said, it's an important document. Some assumptions are critical because they help provide more insight into the situation. "PDF? Oh, no, that's not what I was picturing at all. Let's clarify so we can more accurately plan..." It's unreasonable because writing down all unknowns is a logical fallacy.

Think about it for a minute. Open up a text editor right now and write down everything you don't know. I could give you all the time in the world and the task wouldn't become any more possible to complete. You can't write down everything you don't know because you don't know what those things are.

Using such a document to share insights between team members and to uncover potential problems early in the process is productive and useful. Using such a document to cover our asses for the later inevitability that something unexpected will happen is at worst childish and at best a remnant of a strict waterfall development methodology, complete with red tape and bureaucracy.

Let's start documenting all of my assumptions for this project:
  • I assume that the client's IT infrastructure will not fail and block my work. Ok, that's reasonable. It's fair that if I'm on-site and their network goes down that I may be blocked and that it's their responsibility to unblock me.
  • I assume that the file sizes for any transferred documents will be reasonably small for uploading/downloading on the web. Again, that's fair.
  • I assume that the client wants to use a standard HTML input element (potentially styled to look better) for users to select a file. Well, why wouldn't we? Oh, someone's actually asked for something more custom than that before? Didn't they understand how web pages work? Oh, then I guess it's a fair assumption. I've just never thought to include it in one of these documents before.
  • I assume that the client's holiday/vacation schedule will not prevent me from interacting with key business stakeholders. Well... Ok. That one's a little uncommon, but I guess it makes sense when you think about it. If the client has a ridiculous vacation plan and employees are never there then I can't be expected to get anything done.
  • I assume that the building will not be overrun by jihadists. See, now this is just silly. Why is this even necessary? Well, it's an assumption. Take it or leave it.
  • I assume that the project sponsor's wife won't leave him and put him in an emotional state that makes working very difficult. Hey now, don't make this personal.
  • I assume that my wife won't leave me and put me in an emotional state that makes working very difficult. (Funny story, actually, but I digress.) Wait, how is this covering your own ass again?
  • I assume that gremlins won't... Ok, stop. This is stupid.
Sure, it is kind of stupid. But it's meant to illustrate a point. There are things we don't know, and so we ask for clarification. And then there are things we don't know that we don't know, and so we don't know to ask for clarification. Take that third one above for example. Would you have specified that? Would it even have occurred to you to ask? What other non-web things do you think a client might "have in mind" when they're writing their web application requirements for you? You might be surprised.

The fact is, we can't document everything we don't know. If you replace every request to "document your assumptions" with a request to "write down everything you don't know, including the things you don't even know that you don't know" then it becomes pretty clear how absurd the notion is.

And this is why we have agile programming. We fundamentally look at the problem differently. Instead of battling the futility of documenting everything that we don't know, we simply assume that there exist things that we don't know and we build the process around that assumption.

We're not settling for not knowing. We're not giving up on trying to know. We're just indicating openly and honestly that we recognize the fact that we don't know everything and that we will learn new things throughout the process which will cause us to change plans. (And, really, "open and honest" communication and transparency is a hell of a lot more productive than everyone trying to generate enough of a paper trail to cover their own asses.)

We will learn new things throughout the project. Instead of fighting those things from the start, embrace them when they happen. Assimilate them into the project so that we can keep moving forward. Time spent trying to document everything we don't know is wasted time. Time spent trying to figure out who we can blame for something is wasted time. Don't stall on what we don't know and just move forward with what we do know. Then adjust when the list of things we do know grows.

After all, the requirements and assumptions and all of the other documents are not reality. They are a perception of reality at a point in time. As we move forward with our efforts, we will learn more about reality. Perceptions will change. Reality, however, will not change. So let's adjust the process to make way for reality, instead of trying to fight reality to fit our own previous perceptions.

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