Monday, November 24, 2008

Re-examining Assumptions

Last Friday I met with someone who surprised me in a way I've not been surprised in a long time. This experience has sat with me since then and is inspiring me to re-examine my assumption model.

You see, the meeting was a first conversation about a position in a company and, truth be told, I was very unsure about the prospects and viability of the company. It has been in existence for over a decade, has a good size staff, but, although a web company, did not have significant traffic and, although established, had significantly lower revenue (and higher percentage overhead) than I had expected and with which I am comfortable. In short, there were warning flags.

My assumptions were that the company was not fully executing on its potential, or that perhaps the competition caught up to it and surpassed it. So that is where I focused my pre-conversation research.

The person with whom I met on Friday impressed me. First, he wasted no time in spelling out that he expected significant growth and he laid out the core thinking to his expectations. He made sense and had a fresh perspective on the problem, which is that the company's traditional domain is no longer its current domain, or more accurately, its current growth opportunity domain. The company has to move from one focus -- let's say "newsletters and messaging for the on-line widget industry" is what the company believes is its current domain -- to a new focus -- let's call that "automated marketplace for connecting widget manufacturers to widget consumers" as its new domain. This person's thinking is revolutionary for the company.

Unfortunately for my "pre-screening interview", it was also revolutionary for me. I assumed that we would be talking about one thing -- the company's market position, brand, existing product line, and immediate growth strategy -- so I didn't scour the information I had sufficiently to anticipate where the conversation would go.

From my project and program management experience, I know that it is critical to identify and document the personal and project assumptions for efforts. One of my favorite books on risk management, "Risk Management, Tricks of the Trade for Project Managers" by Rita Mulcahy is a canon that embodies the assumption identification in the processes. I've used assumption identification to pull out critical risk factors in my product management work; it's been a huge differentiator that has helped me get past personalities and focus on functionality, opportunity and risks in new product development.

So I am more than chagrined that I slipped on this. That made me wonder if assumption examination is part of the professional zeitgeist. It doesn't seem to be. Looking around for conversations on how assumptions are recognized and incorporated into various processes, I found an article from EE Times Asia on Re-examing Assumptions, plenty on assumptions at the software engineering level, a little blurb on program risk management from PgMP by Paul Sanghera in Google Book Search, a news article on SEI from 2003. Much more on the engineering side than the business process side, in my opinion, although New Product Forecasting by Kenneth B. Kahn has a section on assumption management that caught my eye.

There is opportunity here. Seemingly there is need for some assumption evangelism -- how are you going to check into your working assumptions about the important things in your life? I know what I'm going do about it in mine.

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