Outsmart Murphy by Managing Your Critical Planning Assumptions

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When NASA’s $125  million Mars Orbiter crashed during the landing phase, a later analysis showed that the spacecraft builders worked in the metric system. NASA assumed, but for some reason failed to verify, that the builders were using the English measurement system of feet and inches. Thus, the Orbiter’s computer contained bogus data and the mission didn’t have a chance.

When “Company X’s” strategic plan crashed during the execution phase, analysis showed that the core strategic planning team worked in the realm of future vision. They assumed, but failed to verify, that there would be adequate support among the stakeholders affected by their plans. This assumption was bogus and their strategy didn’t have a chance.

Whether aiming for Mars or someplace closer, many missions that matter crash on the hard rocks of reality when an implicit but unmanaged assumption went awry.

Murphy and his infamous law dwell in the murky mess of invalid assumptions — those conditions which must exist for the strategy to be valid. The graveyard of failed strategic plans is littered with undefined, unexamined, and untested assumptions such as:

  • Management support is etched in stone on this one.
  • Everyone is in the loop and on-board for the entire ride.
  • We have a good balanced scorecard and that should be sufficient.
  • No use wasting too much ink because we all know our plan.

Assumptions Matter

When bad things happen to good strategies, erroneous assumptions are often to blame.Valid assumptions are critical in developing and executing plans.

Every undertaking rests on assumptions—whether or not they are acknowledged or verified. The best strategic thinkers, planners, and change agents take the time to identify, examine, and validate their underlying assumptions because faulty assumptions act as invisible beds of quicksand, eager to suck good intentions under. So, how do you surface the most relevant ones?

There are two levels at which assumptions analysis can help planners to reality-base their work.  One level concerns assumptions made about the implications of trends and factors that show up during an environmental scan.

There’s an old story about two European shoe salesmen sent to adjacent regions of Africa to study sales potential.   The first reported back that since no one wore shoes, there was zero sales potential.   The second reported that since no one wore shoes, the potential was infinite. Both analyses have the same underlying facts, but diametrically opposed interpretation. These contrasting conclusions reveal very different mental models and assumption at play. This phenomenon can also occur during strategic planning and among strategic planner as well, because we seldom bother to make explicit our implicit assumption.

Equally important are the assumptions in your more immediate planning environment. Ask yourself, “What should we assume?” or “What are we assuming?” in such categories as:

  • Planning Team Members
  • Related Projects
  • Stakeholders Interests
  • Willingness to Change
  • Management Support
  • Customer Expectations
  • Technical Issues
  • Political Climate
  • Resource Availability
  • Competing Concerns

Three Steps for Managing Assumptions

As your own experience may confirm, many strategic initiatives fall flat due tofaculty, ill-formed, undefined or unexamined assumptions.  Assumptions always exist, whether or not we acknowledge or verify them. You need to get them out of your head and onto paper. Try this simple three-step process to surface easily-overlooked potential deal beakers which deserve your attention.

Step 1.  Identify Key Assumptions.

Get your core team together, or fly solo, and use these kick-off questions to surface underlying Assumptions:

  • What conditions must exist, and what factors must be true, for this effort to work?
  • How must the world cooperate with us?
  • What else must happen for this to succeed?
  • What else should we assume?

Step 2. Analyze and Test Them 

Now you can analyze and test each with questions like these:

  • How important is this Assumption to strategy success or failure?
  • How valid or probable is this Assumption? What are the odds? How do we know?
  • If the Assumptions fails, what is the impact? Does it diminish level of accomplishment? Delay it? Destroy it?
  • What could cause this Assumption to not be valid?” (Note: This one triggers specific risk factors).

This first-cut analysis offer a jumping-off point for more rigorous risk assessments using conventional risk management techniques.

Step 3. Act On Them

Now subject each assumptions to the following:

  • Is this a reasonable risk to take?
  • To what extent is it amenable to control? Can we manage it? Influence and nudge it? Or only monitor it?
  • How can we design our initatives to minimize the impact of, or work around, risky Assumptions?
  • What contingency plans might have handy just in case?

Acting on Assumptions requires making contingency plans and putting preventive solutions in place. For example, if it absolutely, positively must get there overnight, send identical packages by DHL, UPS and FedEx. If storms are brewing, do the organizational equivalent of nailing on plywood and getting a gasoline-powered pump before the hurricane hits! You get the idea.

Steering Assumptions Your Direction

By vetting key assumptions as part of plan, your organization can better navigate towards its “future of choice” no matter which way the wind blows.

There are many proven approaches for pulling assumptions from the murky waters where Murphy dwells. One such tool, the Logical Framework approach, teases them out and helps articulate the underlying issues and conditions, so you can either deal with them before they surface and crush your strategy, or monitor them and have a “Plan B” waiting in the wings

As you and your team become adept at managing assumptions, you’ll be better prepared to sail skillfully and courageously across the sea of change washing over us,  rather than getting drowned by a strategic tsunami you didn’t see on the horizon.

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