Dust off your assumptions and test them

I am sure you know how damaging an assumption can be. The wrong assumptions (some say they were deliberate misinformation) led to the 2003 Iraq war, creating one of the biggest mistakes the US has ever made on foreign policy, leading now to the outgrowth of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and its dangerous path down extremism.

Everyone works with assumptions. They are needed to create what is known as “bounded rationality”, a systemic effect of straightening a crooked path. The problem with assumptions is that we don’t treat them as such. Many a times, we operate as though our assumptions are fact, making mistakes that should well be avoided.

So, in today’s short article, we discuss the need to take our your assumptions every now and then, and test them.

We all have assumptions

The first thing to realize is that we all have assumptions. Even if you didn’t think you had assumptions, you do. Some of these assumptions come from deep-seated biases, others from inferences from events and decisions. Even your past experiences will frame the way you see things and that constitutes your assumptions. So when you are dealing with any issues, the first thing you need to do is to lay out all your assumptions. Articulate them as they are, without apologies.

Test them

The next step is to test your assumptions. Sometimes all you need is to ask a couple of questions and poll a few points of view to confirm or disconfirm them. Other times, you would need to go to market and test them. That would require you to develop a prototype or a white paper and assess the reaction of the target audience. When the Singapore government wanted to see the extent to which they could increase the population in Singapore, they released a white paper proposing 6.9 million, knowing full well what a stretch number that was. The aim was not so much to increase the population to this level as to test the limits of what the populace could accept as an increase. And it also has an element of anchoring. Because, ultimately, if they bring in, say 6.4million, Singaporeans might not be too alarmed.

Identify limits

So the government knows that they cannot hit the 6.9million mark; that is the limit for today. Yet somehow, if immigration comes in at, say, 5.9million, that would not be a biggie. Hence, when you articulate your assumptions, you also know that there will be operating limits within which the assumption is correct, and once they cross those boundaries, the assumption may well be wrong. Of course we will not know that for sure, but the key thing is to ensure that we are working within the boundaries of our assumptions. In order to do that, we therefore need to set the limits. Identify what we need to operate within and measure that. Once the system is operating out of those limits, then it is time to take corrective action – either by way of testing the assumptions again, or to change the way things are done - to align them back to normalcy.

Retest your assumptions

Yet, after the Singapore government has brought in, say 6.2million, and infrastructure has been able to accommodate them well, and there has not be an adverse effect on the citizenry, then suddenly the 6.9million limit may well be achievable. This may come about by way of changes in the operating system and in the mindset of the populace. What this means is that systems will also shift and this can result in shifting the goalposts. Hence, what once were limits may well be within the operating norm. We will of course not know that, until we retest our assumptions.

System boundaries will shift

Ultimately what we are saying is that the boundaries of your system will shift and the limits of your assumption may also likewise be impacted. But you will never know that unless you are constantly measuring where you are at, and whether you have crossed those boundaries. And when you near them, it is time to ascertain if indeed there is a need to recalibrate. In sum, therefore, you need to constantly take out your assumptions and test them.

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