The Key Assumptions Check involves listing and examining the key working assumptions that form the basis of your assessment.
Doing this at an early stage will help you avoid basing your conclusion on flawed premises and relying too much on first impressions. Approximately a quarter of assumptions on average collapse upon careful examination.
Without this check, can remain unaware of how much your analysis depends on certain premises being true. How can you safely rely on them if you haven't examined and tested them?
How to perform a Key Assumptions Check
To perform a key assumptions check:
- Clearly state the way you are analyzing the problem
- Spell out all the premises (both stated and unstated) that you have accepted as true (using question types such as Who, What, When, Where, Why and How?)
- Challenge each assumption, asking why it "must" be true and whether it remains valid under all conditions (watch out particularly for phrases such as "will always," "will never," "would have to be" or "generally the case")
- Categorize each assumption as one of the following: Basically supported/solid, Correct with some caveats, or Unsupported/Questionable
- Refine the list of key assumptions to contain only those that "must be true" to support your analysis.
During this process consider:
- How confident are you that this assumption is correct?
- Why are you confident that this assumption is correct?
- What circumstances or information might undermine this assumption?
- Is a key assumption more likely a key uncertainty or key factor?
- Could the assumption have been true in the past but less so now?
- If the assumption proves to be wrong, how would this affect your analysis?
- Has this process identified new factors that need further analysis?
Example of a Key Assumptions Check
(From "CIA Tradecraft Primer").
Advantages of the Key Assumptions Check
This method helps:
- Explain the logic of the argument and expose faulty logic
- Understand the key factors at play
- Gain a broader perspective and stimulate thinking
- Uncover hidden relationships and links between key factors.
It is regarded in intelligence circles as one of the top five structured analytical techniques.
The challenge of hidden assumptions
One of the hardest challenges is to identify the hidden assumptions we believe to be true and therefore don't consciously examine, let alone challenge.
This is one of the reasons it is particularly helpful to collaborate with a group of people with different perspectives.