Are your critical assumptions valid?

Project decisions are fueled by assumptions. But are they valid? One of the keys to project success is to make each critical assumption transparent and then to try to validate it or invalidate it as quickly as possible.

When you’re using a map and a compass to get from point A to point B, you also rely on assumptions. But the map and compass provide you with a way to confirm or deny those assumptions if you know how to use them. Am I really traveling on a 175-degree azimuth? The compass can show you. Is this the east-west trail I was seeking? The compass tells you that it’s going roughly east-west into the wood line on each side. The map tells you that if you go west, and you are where you think you are then the trail will curve to your right. The contour lines on the map tell you that it will begin to go up a gentle slope. And, if you travel a few hundred meters, you should see a small stream on your right going down the hill and at an angle away from the trail.

So you head out. You think you are going west. And you think you were starting from the right spot on the right trail. Your job at this point is to confirm or deny those assumptions as quickly as possible. If you go into the wood line and the trail begins to slope downhill and curve to the left then something is wrong. Continuing to go that way will not get you to the point you are trying to reach.

In orienteering, the sport of finding points in the woods with a map and compass, one of the problems competitors face is that they try to make the landscape around them fit the map. They might be completely turned around and going the wrong direction, but that’s sort of uphill with a right curve. Sure, it curved a little to the left but then came back, didn’t it? It’s a form of confirmation bias to try to conform what you are seeing with what you thought you would see. But it will get you lost.

Project teams can do this too. They look for the facts that support the narrative they thought they would see and miss the danger signs. This sort of confirmation bias can be dangerous to your project because it prolongs the effect of flawed decisions based on invalid assumptions. You keep going toward what you think is point B, but it is not. One of the ways to overcome this is to get an objective assessment of your project from somebody that knows how to identify and question your basic assumptions. And the sooner the better. The more time and money you spend going in the wrong direction, the less ability you have to change directions and salvage your project.