Unchecked assumptions in our strategic and product or project planning activities are like that car in the blind-spot of our mirrors when driving down the highway. Failing to check before making a move can have disastrous consequences. Effective teams and planners, much like careful drivers, look hard to isolate and address blind-spots before turning into them. The starting point for this process involves isolating, unpacking and stress testing assumptions.
Informal Devil’s Advocacy is Mostly Ineffective:
Most of us in our organizational settings and decision making processes have encountered or invited some form of Devil’s Advocacy into our planning processes. Perhaps one person is identified as the DA and encouraged to challenge group thinking and suggest alternative approaches.
Typically the role is unstructured, and ultimately the group (and the DA) grow annoyed with random nit-picking, and the function loses energy and effectiveness.
In some settings where the DA has a more formalized role, the process still breaks down due to group dynamics, political pressures, and the simple fact the DA is most often out-numbered.
In MBA courses where we teach team development and decision-making practices, my experience with group efforts on cases and other team activities is there’s typically a preoccupation on finding consensus (which can be the tyranny of mediocrity) and less on inviting outside, critical analysis. Even when I emphasize the need to introduce a strict DA role, the efforts are haphazard, half-hearted, or both.
Enter Red Teaming:
There’s very little haphazard or half-hearted about the formal application of Red Teaming—a deliberate process and approach for challenging plans and assumptions. This mostly military developed and practiced process of truly thinking critically about a plan has ancient roots and very modern applications and devotees in the military and security worlds and increasingly in corporate environments.
I am currently working my way through Bryce G. Hoffman’s take on this topic in his book on this topic, Red Teaming—How Your Business Can Conquer the Competition by Challenging Everything, and cringing at the reminders of how weak we are in stress testing our strategies and programs before bringing them to market.
Given the rate of product launch, merger and acquisition and strategic failures, it seems we can all use a lot more Red Teaming in our work. However, before exploring and adopting this rigorous and deliberate process, you can jump-start strengthening your planning and decision-making processes by learning to unpack and stress test your assumptions.
Fracking and Mapping:
I’ll save the broader treatment of this topic and Hoffman’s book for future articles, however, the one activity that is reaching out of the pages and clubbing me over the head repeatedly is the emphasis on analyzing assumptions.
At one point. Hoffman relates another’s description of this work as fracking—the process of breaking out all of the assumptions…spoken and unspoken, as well as mapping how the assumptions connect to data and facts.
Every person involved in planning—from the marketing manager planning a new campaign to the strategy group eyeing new, future conquests—must spend more time as Hoffman suggests, fracking and mapping assumptions.
Remember the car in the blind spot example? Make a move and forget to check, and your life takes an ugly turn in a hurry.
Go Drilling and Fracking for Assumptions:
In navigating complex problems, groups ultimately settle on an approach that is based on visible assumptions and hidden biases. Too often, these assumptions are either not singled out, or, as the word suggests, they are “assumed” into the picture.
As the dialog around an approach gains momentum, a number of biases enter the picture, not the least of which is some form of the infamous groupthink bias. In my vernacular, the group begins to believe that it has cracked the code and cannot fail. They resist outside views and cultivate a shared feeling of invincibility.
A critical process check is to step back and single out every possible assumption—spoken or unspoken—that is guiding the groups thinking. Of course, one of the challenges is the group may suppress or offer biased versions of the assumptions.
Instead of making this a “Do It Yourself” process, the team leader must invite one or more (ideally more) outside critical thinkers to help identify and unpack the assumptions driving plan development. For group members, this may feel like a tooth extraction without Novocain. In reality, it’s incredibly healthy.
At this stage, the process isn’t focused on critiquing assumptions, but simply identifying those allegedly universal laws or rules the team believes will manifest as they move in the direction of success. While some assumptions emerge immediately, skilled critical thinkers will dig deep and go sideways to look for the unspoken assumptions—the blind-spots.
In most settings I’ve encountered, unspoken assumptions around capabilities, competitor responses, customer needs, the uniqueness of solutions, and simplicity versus complexity emerge as part of this process.
While not all assumptions are created equal, the extraction of these items from the team and planning environment sets the stage for rich and critical analysis of the facts or lack thereof surrounding each assumption.
Your Starter Actions:
Moving from zero to formal Red Teaming overnight is implausible for most organizations. I do encourage exploration of this deliberate process for every management team. In the short-term, as in today, hit the pause button before plans turn into execution activities and go drilling for assumptions.
Use the approach outlined above and require the team to uncover all of the spoken and unspoken assumptions guiding thinking.
Once visible, i look for the data and facts behind these assumptions. Ask yourself and your team: “Can we confidenetly assess a probability to each of our assumptions?”
Throw out the opinion-based assumptions if they cannot be backed by facts or data where a probability can be established.
Distill down to the remaining essential assumptions and subject them to rigorous evaluation.
Refine your assumption list and wording to reflect an honest appraisal (as honest as we can get with our inherent biases) and then rethink the solution set given this new clarity.
My counsel is to require your team to throw the old solution away and develop a new one or multiple fresh solutions from the ground up.
Use multiple frames to strengthen the solution set development.
Analyze the options if one or more of the assumptions fail.
Refine and revise your plans to achieve your objective while minimizing risks where possible.
Yes, this sounds like work.
Yes, this will slow you down.
It takes effort to check-your blind-spot before changing lanes.
The outcome is more than worth the effort in terms of time and cost.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
Measure twice, cut once. Good intentions don’t ensure success. Critical thinking ahead of execution improves the odds for you. And of course, once the adversary is engaged, the assumptions may crumble. As you define new plans and responses, rinse and repeat on fracking and mapping. Eisenhower’s quote: “Plans are worthless but planning is everything,” has never been more true.