Dangerous Assumptions – Maybe we should just ask?

by Tricia Sutton 11/18/2014 at 12:00 PM in Process Improvement, Continuous Improvement / Lean / Agile, Not-for-profit, Tools / Tips / Tricks

Image: Question Assumptions. Magnifying glass with question mark in blue oval.

Most people know about breaking down ASSUME into what it can mean about us when we make assumptions… Ass_U_Me.  I’ve found that to be especially true for “dangerous assumptions.”

Back in October, I enjoyed a LinkedIn® Pulse article by Glenn Leibowitz(1) on “The 3 Dangerous Assumptions You Need To Avoid.” After an anecdote about his childhood that could easily be a part of a family vacation Hollywood movie, he describes the danger of assumptions and three types of dangerous assumptions:

Assumptions about:

  1. What is expected
  2. Other people
  3. Our abilities


The post has kept rolling around my mind, especially as I plan some process improvement efforts for some not-for-profits I serve, so I decided to expand on it with an organizational perspective…


In processes, people make a lot of assumptions and they can be important and useful to help move forward in many cases. There are good reasons to make assumptions, like to get things started,  to test what is or is not true (part of the act of hypothesizing), to expedite things, to prioritize what a process will address, to mitigate analysis paralysis … Much of the risk or danger, though, comes from how we use the assumptions and whether we remember we are basing something on assumptions.


Some categories of assumptions that go across Mr. Leibowitz’ three types are:


  • Hidden Assumptions
    • Were they made consciously, intentionally, for good reasons?
    • Are we aware we made an assumption (closely related to the next category … assumptions treated as facts).

We can uncover them by asking questions about why we are doing something a certain way, whether we know a good reason why we shouldn’t change how we are doing something… Awareness of assumptions goes a long way to knowing what may or may not be open to improvement.


  • Assumptions Treated As Facts
    • Do we realize it is an assumption (especially that it was put in place for a specific reason)?
    • Do we recognize or provide for exceptions that may not fit the assumption?

Again here, question things to test understanding. Probe into what we believe to be true and why we believe that.  Look at the basis, past documentation, data available to support the way we are doing things. We may decide it is an appropriate assumption, just call it out as an assumption so all are more aware of it.


  • Forgotten Assumptions
    • Are the assumptions visible so that the participants in the process are reminded the basis for the approach taken?
    • Have we used an assumption so long that we take it for granted?  Forgotten we are basing our approach on an assumption?

Assumptions can and should be made visible – called out and integrated into the process documentation,  as well as in systems that support a process. For example, add short notes and links to more information. Reminders and mental queues help keep assumptions top of mind and help us identify when to re-evaluate them.


  • Outdated or Invalid Assumptions
    • Are the reasons for doing it that way still valid? Has the original basis for the assumption changed? (Do we even know the reasons or original basis?)
    • Have we reviewed the assumptions recently to evaluate whether they are still valid?

For example, if a certain age group constituted the bulk of our members at the time the process was defined, we may have prioritized the process to handle the needs of that group, such as the information gathered and how it is gathered. Different groups tend to have different needs and preferences. Failing to recognize changing demographics can increase the work-arounds or exceptions or worse yet, make important member groups dissatisfied, potentially reducing retention. Look at whether the organization’s demographics have changed.  Also evaluate whether / how does that affect the priorities and processes.


These types of assumptions can become evident when we have an increasing number of exceptions that don’t work well within the process. Something that only occurred rarely but is now happening frequently can suggest something may be changing. The more workarounds and exceptions to be addressed, the more likely we should look at analyzing and improving the process.


Questioning assumptions is a healthy part of continuous improvement, especially process improvement. Assumptions are powerful when made consciously and managed. So ask some questions! The answers often can be simple and easy to address and at least help identify and set priorities for improvement.


P.S. Now asking questions is a topic of its own so stay tuned for that topic in the future…



(1)  Glenn Leibowitz. 10/7/2014.  “The 3 Dangerous Assumptions You Need To Avoid.” LinkedIn Pulse Article. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20141007175115-98412130-the-3-dangerous-assumptions-you-need-to-avoid?trk=tod-home-art-list-small_1


© 2014. Sutton Enterprises Inc.


Tricia Sutton, PMP  is an innovator. As the leader of Sutton Enterprises Inc., she has been able to instigate strategic change in not-for-profits looking to improve their practices and performance. Tricia works relentlessly to be on the cutting edge of knowledge and technology, including authoring and co-authoring many articles and serving as a volunteer in professional associations.
Learn more: Sutton Enterprises
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