& Thales' Press: February 2014

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

How Do You Know That? Funny You Should Ask.

During a recent market development planning exercise, my client recognized that his colleagues were making some rather dubious assumptions regarding the customers they were trying to address (i.e., acceptable price, adoption rate, lifecycle, market size, etc.), the costs of development, and costs of support. Although he frequently asked “How do you know that?”, he seemed to face irritation and mild belligerence in reaction from those he asked to justify their assumptions. So, together we devised a simple little routine to force the recognition that assumed facts might be shakier than previously thought.

After bringing the development team members together, we went around the room and asked for a list of statements that each believed to be true that must be true for the program to succeed. We wrote each down as a succinct, declarative statement. Then, after everyone had the opportunity to reflect on the statements, we converted each to a question simply by converting the periods to question marks.

Before Western explorers proved that the Earth is round, ships used to sail right off the assumed edges.

We then asked the team to supply a statement that answered each question in support of the original statement. Once this was completed, we then appended the dreaded question mark to each of these responses. We repeated this process until no declarative answers could be supplied in response to the questions. The cognitive dissonance among the team members became palpable as they all had to start facing the uncomfortable situation that what they once advocated as fact was largely unsupportable. Many open questions remained. More uncertainty reigned than was previously recognized. The remaining open questions then became the basis for uncertainties in our subsequent modeling efforts in which we examined value tradeoffs in decisions as a function of the quality of information we possessed. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the team faced even more surprises as the implications of their tenuous assumptions came to light.

I am interested to know how frequently you find yourself participating in planning exercises at work in which key decisions are made on the basis of largely unsupported or untested assumptions. My belief is that such events happen much more often than we care to admit.

I would also be interested to know if the previously described routine works with your colleagues to force awareness of just how tenuous many preconceived notions really are. I outline the steps below for clarity.
  1. Write down everything you believe to be true about the issue or subject at hand. 
  2. Each statement should be a single declarative statement. 
  3. Read each out loud, forcing ownership of the statement.
  4. Convert each statement to a question by changing the period to a question mark.
  5. Again, read each out loud as a question, opening the door to the tentative nature of the original statement.
  6. Supply a statement that you believe to be true that answers each question.
  7. Repeat the steps above until you reach a point with each line of statements-questions where you can no longer supply answers.
You might find that using a mind mapping tool such as MindNode or XMind are useful for documenting and displaying the assumptions and branching question/responses. The visual display may serve to help your team see connections among assumptions that were not previously recognized.

Let me know if you try this and how well it works.

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