Working with assumptions – risky but necessary

I presume that:

  • some of my assumptions are wrong
  • I can rate these according to their importance and degree of certainty, but even then, I will need to remain open to further need for adjustment when more information becomes available. I therefore assume that all of my assumptions are working hypotheses, and subject to revision
  • we need to be aware of our shared assumptions when we are involved in strategic planning and execution, and project management
  • most, if not all, of our assumptions need to be surfaced and tested if we are to optimise our strategic and operational success

Examining assumptions

Good advice in one context may be poor advice in another. For example, the injunction to ‘never assume‘ may be sound advice when applied to making assumptions about people and their motivations. It is likely to be poor advice however, when applied to strategic planning and project management.

Not that unexamined or unrealistic assumptions should be relied upon for these activities of course. Rather, assumptions we are making when we do an environmental scan as part of our strategic planning process, or which we may be making when planning and managing a project, need to be identified, examined, and taken into account.

When we assume something, we take it for granted. Whether we do so as a tentative proposition based on reasonable grounds, or hold a view unconsciously due to (limited) life experience, will make a difference to the quality of any decisions we make using those assumptions.

Pervasive assumptions

Assumptions are relied upon in countless ways in every situation we encounter. In non-profit and for-purpose organisations, a few of the more obvious areas in which assumptions feature include strategic planning, product and service development, and project management. Sample sets of ‘assumption types’ used during work on various common functions and activities are listed in the header chart above. Doubtless, you will be able to identify many additional types that are relevant to your organisation and work.

Assumptions can relate to target audiences or client groups, current conditions affecting the work, proposed strategic measures, and the short-, medium-, and long-term outcomes of strategies, amongst other elements. Many previous posts on this blog have referred to assumptions, and links to just some of these are provided at the foot of this post.

Reasonable vs false assumptions

We describe assumptions in many ways but essentially they divide into two clusters – those we can work with (reasonable) and those we can’t (false). Synonyms for each of the terms ‘reasonable assumption’ and ‘false assumption’ are listed in the charts which follow.

When planning a strategy, program, or project, there are some matters about which assumptions must be made, because the information is simply not available. Testing or validating assumptions is important to the extent that’s possible, to avoid the risk of unexamined assumptions leading to adverse events or outcomes.

When directors are encouraged to bring a healthy skepticism to their role, this is less about being suspicious of everyone’s motives (unless there are grounds for that), and more about being ready to challenge assumptions during decision-making. Flawed assumptions often lead to adverse or unproductive outcomes.

There are numerous situations in which we don’t yet know all the details or circumstances, but where assumptions may be helpful to us in exploring the range of possible, plausible, and indeed preferred, courses of action.

Critical assumptions

Josh Kaufman, in his book The Personal MBA, defines critical assumptions as “facts or characteristics that must prove true in the real world for your business or offering to succeed“.

Kaufman argues that every organisation has a set of critical assumptions that will make or break its continued existence. Identifying and testing the validity of these assumptions is a critical success factor. Done well, you can have greater confidence in the wisdom of your strategy.

Strategic Assumptions

When employing a theory of change for strategic planning purposes, the identification, monitoring, and updating of underlying assumptions is an essential part of the process. Author Mark Hollingworth makes a good case for examining assumptions being relied on when undertaking strategic planning:

“In the field of strategy, the admission that assumptions are being made in the preparation of strategic plans needs to be acknowledged. Moreover, transparency and discussion surrounding these assumptions need to be viewed as key elements and the responsibility of the strategy creators.”

Unless certain assumptions are made visible, your strategy runs the risk of being impractical. Also, hidden assumptions may create stress or overload issues for those expected to implement your strategy.

Several approaches to Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing (SAST) can be found online, with some designed for strategic planning and others for product/service design or project management.

Assumption mapping is one of the methods used for this purpose, and a version of this is described in the 4-step chart below.

Two variable qualities of assumptions are used to map them onto a quadrant chart with a view to sorting them into those that can be considered reasonable, those requiring further research or testing, and those which are not helpful. These variables are sometimes described with different terms, but they are all essentially the same. The vertical (y) axis is usually labeled importance (H-L), impact (H-L), or risk (H-L), while the horizontal (x) axis may be labeled probability (H-L), confidence (H-L), level of proof (H-L), level of evidence (H-L), ease of validation (H-L), or knowability (H-L), amongst others.

Risk assumptions

It’s true that jumping to conclusions is risky, and in some circumstances leads to tragic outcomes. Consequently, directors take some care to consider their strategic and operational risk profile, and take steps to prevent adverse events and outcomes. Various templates have been devised to assist planners to examine their assumptions, with each being adaptable to the type of organisation or process which is in focus. A version of one such template, which considers assumption risks, is provided below:

Another process used during risk assessment is to use IF-THEN statements for each assumption underpinning strategic initiatives and operational activities. The IF statement reflects the likelihood or probability of the assumption being false, while the THEN statement describes the impact of that false assumption. This might be expressed: “IF this assumption proved to be false, THEN the effect on the project/initiative would be …”

Of course, any process that seeks to rate risks still has to account for the possibility that there are hidden or unacknowledged assumptions that could be flawed or false.

We can also use IF-THEN analyses when exploring various scenarios, especially with regard to the constraints which affect opportunities. In this case, we might use a format such as “IF this constraint could be relaxed or removed THEN the effect on the project/initiative would be …”

SEKAR and RAID analysis

Two further analytical tools which highlight assumptions are:

  • the SEKAR (Source, Evidence, Knowing, Assumptions, and Reconsider) method for reflecting on strategic initiatives or proposed innovations; and
  • the RAID (Risk, Assumptions, Issues, and Dependencies) tool used in project management.

Guidance on the use of these two valuable tools is offered in the charts below, for your reference.


In conclusion, a selection of insightful quotes about assumptions, usually expressed as warnings about the risks associated with reliance on unvalidated opinions or beliefs, is offered for your reflection below.

See also:

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