From the Blog


In continuing my series on writing good proposals I would like to cover the topic of assumptions and parameters. Up until now we’ve explored the earlier sections in a good proposal…description, scope, schedule and budget. Now it’s time to look at one of the last sections, which I call Assumptions and Parameters.
I remember years ago a school teacher told me that assumptions were dangerous. And he further shared…In order for me to remember this fact I should notice the word assume…broken down it says ass, u & me. Like, making assumptions makes an ass out of you and me. Not very funny…But memorable. Assumptions truly do represent a serious threat to successful business dealings.

However, in business it is sometimes necessary to assume certain facts in order to streamline communications. For instance…you can safely assume your client would like you to deliver work free of spelling errors. You can also safely assume a client will be happy if you deliver on time, on budget and free of defects. Other than the common sense stuff there is one (and only one) other time when making assumptions is not dangerous…and that’s when you communicate them. There’s that word again…communicate. It’s really important. Let’s consider a few examples.
Imagine you have been hired to build a web site for a client which is going to include HTML5 pages. You know this means a whole bunch of very popular browsers will not be supported. Is it safe to assume the client knows this? Negative ghost rider! I always include which browsers and other software will be supported in the assumptions and parameters when I start a new project.

Or, let’s say you are a wedding DJ and your bride and groom request a rare recording of an old song for their wedding reception. The song is only available on a scratchy old record album they dug out of grandma’s basement. Can you safely assume they will be OK with it when it skips in the middle of their critical first dance? No way. Write it down. The other important thing about assumptions and parameters is you can’t just write it down and assume the client will notice. That is equally silly…I try to review them once before the client signs and once again during the project kick off meeting. I also refer back to them if any required features end up in conflict with one or more assumptions.

In the end, again, it is all about communication. Don’t assume anybody knows what you are thinking…because they don’t. Every single conflict I have ever had in my professional life can be traced back to a miscommunication or lack of communication. It is fair to say most people I have encountered genuinely want to do the right thing…they just forget to communicate what their version of the right thing to do is. Myself included…


When given the choice, I prefer to plan projects with a fixed bid estimate. What this means is if the client accepts my proposal I will fulfill the terms of the agreement with no change in cost. If the effort required to complete the scope of the project is more than I expected it’s my responsibility.

There is one exception to this. If, after the project begins, the client decides they would like to change the scope of the project, we must agree to the new terms in writing before we proceed. This is the best way to help clients avoid spiraling costs but it is also a little less flexible than a simple estimate. Handling changes in scope is an entire topic of discussion for another day.

Proceeding with a fixed bid demands a well defined scope. Consider this example:

You are a landscaper and a new customer calls to have their bushes trimmed back. They explain their last landscaper was fired so if you do well there is a lot more work. You arrive at the address and find a 6,000 square foot mansion on the end of a cul-de-sac with an acre of landscaped property bordered by woods on three sides. The front of the house has a 100′ long hedgerow separating the driveway from the lawn and there are Junipers under the windows on the front of the house. Naturally, you assume these are the bushes. Estimating this will take your team of three men a half day you estimate $1500 on a fixed bid and agree with a handshake and no scope defined in writing. This is a little less than you would normally charge but this is a new client and you really want their business over the long run.

A week later your guys show up and trim the hedges and the junipers and leave an invoice in the mailbox. The next day you get a call from the client, who explains they are not going to pay until you finish the job. Confused, you ask your guys to confirm what they did…which matches what you expected. However, the client informs you, they expected you to take care of the bushes…like they asked. They have 4 acres of undergrowth on the wooded part of their property and they are concerned about wild fires.

The problem here is your definition of the bushes and their definition of the bushes were are not aligned. Because you failed to define the scope of ‘trimming back the bushes’ in writing…you are now in a tough situation. This client could be good for years and years of loyal patronage with such a big piece of property. Argue and they probably won’t ever pay you at all.

So how could this have been avoided? It all goes back to the scope, which we already explored. On the topic of budgets, you will want to repeat back the items in your scope and attach a price to each item. In this example the scope would have been:

1. Trim hedgerow in front – $1000.00

2. Clean juniper bushes – $500

3. Clear out 4 acres of undergrowth – $5000.00

4. Dumpster rental/Waste removal – $1000.00

Put in writing like this there is no confusion about what you are agreeing to provide. Notice the dumpster rental? This highlights another important detail of fixed bid estimating. To be successful you must remember to think the project through and list all the costs up front. If you were to have left all the waste on the client’s driveway because you forgot to include waste removal it’s unlikely you would be asked to return.

This kind of situation can easily occur in technology consulting. If a client says they need you to build a web site it is quite possible they don’t know about hosting, domain name registration and DNS management. Better to include them in your estimate and let them ask for them to be removed than leave them out until the web site is built and then surprise the client with additional costs. Trust me.