If you ask a room full of kids, what happens when we assume? They’ll all giggle and say “you make an ASS out of U and ME”. That joke never gets old. But it’s really more than a joke, it’s a life principle!

Recently, my youngest son got a job; this is a major milestone and one we were eager to support. Because he was saving up to get a car, he had to rely on us for transportation. Never before did the assumptions of a teen impact our family more than the day he assumed how long a test would take.

Since the evaluation was some distance from home, I dropped him off and waited at a nearby Starbucks for his call. The laptop lifestyle of an entrepreneur often affords me that flexibility. However, he had “assumed” the training would take an hour. After about 90 minutes, he sent me a text that the training ended at 6 pm (I had dropped him off at 8 am).

Both of us were clearly frustrated with this new information. I couldn’t help but recall a point I make in my project management seminars:

Unvalidated assumptions are a risk (uncertainty) to your project

For my son, it was the loss of what he thought was a day off with only a short appointment to tend to. For me, it was the disruption of a day and unscheduled travel to the other side of town.

How to Avoid Mistakes Due to Assumptions

As I broke this down in my head, I saw 3 ways it could have been avoided, and these notes will help you as you plan your projects at work and at home:

1. Identify

Identify who the right person is to give you information. In my son’s case, he was new to the company and wasn’t sure whom to ask. He should have kept asking until he found the decision-maker. In your organization, this sometimes requires internal networking and simply “knowing people”.

Leaders who don’t interact regularly with others are less likely to get in touch with the right people and can end up barking up the wrong tree. Get out there, meet people, and find out who they know.

2. Clarify

Once you find the decision-maker, ask them about the assumption so they can validate it or tell you otherwise. You can simply state your assumption and ask if this is true or false. Include that if it is false, please provide clarification. This means of communication simplifies the exchange. This will work in person, by email, or via text.

Alternatively, you can phrase it as a direct question. Had my son found a knowledgeable team member and stated: “I suspect the skills test is an hour, is this true?” they could have debunked his assumption. Even if he had asked “how long does the testing take?” he could have saved us both the frustration. Assign an owner to the assumption and have them monitor it.

To maximize your day, insist that the assumption gets validated BEFORE putting it on the calendar.

3. Treat as “Unknown”

If you don’t get a clear answer by the time you have to move, consider the assumption as an unknown. Do not proceed as if it were a fact.

You handle unknowns differently than facts, and that is for a reason. You have to account for different responses and treat each as its own set of actions. In this case, we assumed the event would take an hour, but we need a contingency plan if it’s going to be longer. In this case, if the test is an hour then mom should wait nearby. If the test is all day, then a ride home needs to be arranged. Two very different outcomes based on two totally different answers. And there should have been an insistence in paying closer attention when he checked in upon arrival.

Unfortunately, despite my best efforts to teach a teen to think like a project manager, here I sit at Starbucks still waiting. Lessons happen for us all. Hopefully, he and I will both learn from this.