Challenge your assumptions

Sep 29, 2020
Des Peelo explains the one pertinent question business leaders should ask before making any major decision.

Better information means better decisions, which, in turn, means better outcomes. The critical point here is that understanding what the information is, and what it is not, makes for a more informed decision.
Concerning major decisions, what is the most dangerous word in the vocabulary of politics, economics, or business? Most people would say ‘risk’, meaning that the result could go wrong, have a poor outcome, and/or have an unexpected adverse effect.

Major decisions arise in many circumstances. Directors consider a significant business acquisition or seek to confront a crisis; a politician is pressed on a problematic public issue; an economist is asked to advise on substantial infrastructure spending. All involve risk. The human instinct is to avoid risk or at least minimise it.

There is a more dangerous word than ‘risk’, however. That word is ‘assumption’. I have witnessed several difficult circumstances or court hearings where the evidence, written or verbal, involved statements like “I assumed…” or “the assumption was…” In other words, something has gone wrong in using an assumption. As Albert Einstein said: “Assumptions are made, and most assumptions are wrong”.

Assumptions are higher up in the decision-making tree than risk. In fact, assumptions create risk. Decisions are made to create an outcome in the future. That purpose, by definition, means making assumptions as to the components necessary to make that decision. An understanding and assessment of risk, therefore, means evaluating the validity of the assumptions.

There can be a pyramid of underlying assumptions in a situation. Take, for example, the view that investment in an improved rail network is a ‘given’ good idea (an assumption in itself). Assessing the viability of such an investment necessarily involves assumptions as to passenger volumes, fare prices, capital costs, timescale to completion, availability of finance, and so on. It is instructive to witness the debates about the development of public transport around Dublin, such as an underground rail service and airport link. On differing assumptions, any such capital expenditure can be justified or debunked.

Assumptions are not facts, though often presented as such. Indeed, most assumptions are reasonably benign and have a historical comparison or rational basis. But assumptions are made by people and often reflect perceptions, prejudices, and biases. They are seen as valid if they conform to already held views or experiences.

Even further back in the assumption analyses are demographics (i.e. the breakdown of the population as to age, location, birth rates, and so on). Almost any significant political or economic decision necessitates knowing and understanding the influence of underlying demographics. The three phases of life – education, work, and retirement – have evolving characteristics and interpretations. Statistics are endless and often challenging to interpret as to trends and reasons why, yet they likely influence significant decisions.

Back to the decisions. An insistence on knowing and understanding the key assumptions is the obligation of those tasked with making decisions. For instance, the avoidance of subsequent large cost overruns in capital projects can only be addressed through a prior rigorous assessment of the underlying timescales, cost estimates, comparisons with similar projects and, most critically, a testing of the individuals and/or firms on their capabilities in making the assumptions.
The history of major business acquisitions is littered with casualties. The cause is often later identified as being a lack of informed reasoning in making the acquisition in the first place, the underlying assumption being that it must be a good idea because the advisers said so.

The pertinent question to ask before a major decision is, therefore: please list in order of importance or risk the top ten specific assumptions in making the project/circumstance work. But remember: vague assumptions (such as a “buoyant economy” or “no change in interest rates”) do not count as specific assumptions.