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Check Your Assumptions at the Door

During the summer months, we keep our doors closed to stifling heat, mosquitoes, and other pests. Similarly, when we perform analysis, we should strive to keep our mental doors closed to unsupported assumptions. The May edition of The Analytic Insider kicked off our summer series of the five most popular Structured Analytic Techniques (SAT) used in analysis today. This month’s SAT – Key Assumptions Check – teaches you how to leave your assumptions at the door.

Key Assumptions Check is an exercise to explicitly list and challenge the key working suppositions that underlie the basic analysis.

Key Assumptions Checks safeguard analysts against several classic mental mistakes, including the tendencies to overdraw conclusions, weight first impressions too heavily, and fail to factor into their thinking the absence of evidence. Preparing a written list of your working assumptions at the beginning of your project will help you:

  • Achieve a better understanding of the most important dynamics at play.
  • Gain a broader perspective and stimulate new thinking about the issue.
  • Discover hidden relationships and links between factors.
  • Identify what developments would call a key assumption into question.
  • Avoid surprise should new information render old assumptions invalid.

The Method

The process of conducting a Key Assumptions Check is straightforward in concept, but can be challenging in practice. Statistically speaking, about one in four assumptions collapses upon careful examination. To conduct your Key Assumptions Check, gather a small group of individuals who are working the issue as well as a few “outsiders” who can share other perspectives.

Participants should provide their list of assumptions on 3×5 cards. Next:

  • Record all of the assumptions on a whiteboard or easel.
  • Elicit additional assumptions, using various devices to prod participants’ thinking, like the journalists’ questions: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How?
    • Use of phrases such as “will always,” will never,” or “would have to be” suggests that an idea is not being challenged. Perhaps it should be!
    • Use of phrases such as “based on” or “generally the case” suggests that a challengeable assumption is being made.
  • After developing a full set of assumptions, go back and critically examine each assumption, and ask:
    • Why am I confident the assumption is correct?
    • In what circumstance might it be untrue?
    • Could it have been true in the past but no longer be true today?
    • How much confidence do I have that the assumption is valid?
    • If it turns out to be invalid, how much impact would this have on the analysis?
  • Place each assumption in one of three categories:
    • Basically supported or solid.
    • Correct with some caveats.
    • Unsupported or questionable – these “key uncertainties.” Often merit additional attention.
  • Refine the list, combining or refining some assumptions and
    adding new ones that emerge from the discussion.
  • Consider whether to convert key uncertainties into intelligence
    collection requirements or research topics.

For more information about this and other SATs, click the link below to purchase Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis (2nd Edition). This book features fifty-five structured analytic techniques – five new to this edition – that represent the most current best practices in intelligence, law enforcement, homeland security, and business analysis.

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