This technique was originally developed by
Jeff Gothelf & Josh Seiden
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Assumptions Mapping

When we reframe business activity as a continuous effort to reduce uncertainty, we see how critical it is to get a handle on assumptions. All business efforts are built on a base of assumptions - it’s how we are able to move forward despite the unknown.

But do we surface and talk about these assumptions? And more critically, do we use them to pursue learning? To drive the work to pursue learning? Probably not enough.

Assumption mapping is a technique attributed to Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden in “Lean UX” and refined by David Bland for product managers. It helps leaders leverage their implicit assumptions to drive learning efforts, often via small experiments or research efforts.

When do we make assumptions? All the time! But for this discussion, let’s focus on the assumptions that surface as we settle on a strategic direction for the business, the product, or the function that we lead. As we built out an integrated set of choices to formulate a strategic path, we were also building it on a scaffolding of assumptions. The uncertainty (hanging like a cloud over the strategy) is where we uncover our implicit assumptions. 

The first step is to make the implicit assumptions explicit. The leadership team documents them to drive a shared understanding. What we do with the assumptions is the critical step, however. 

Traditionally, an organization would plow forward with execution, and check whether the assumptions panned out much later, when the solutions were delivered. Modern product development takes a different path, emphasizing continuous discovery to validate assumptions in cheaper ways. Cheaper ways include customer interviews, user research, small experiments, or incremental development with robust measurement of outcomes, to name a few. These all help reduce uncertainty by checking assumptions, prior to building on top of them.

But where to start? We end up carrying a LOT of assumptions into strategic planning! 

This is where Assumption Mapping can provide focus. Here’s how it works:

  1. Review the strategic direction for your context, and any associated risks that were captured from the 1-2 year vision
  2. Use context-specific prompts from the strategic visioning activity to list questions that don’t have clear answers yet [e.g. “What would have to be true for this vision to be realized?”, or this product-based set of prompts]
  3. Work with the leadership team to answer the questions, and frame them as assumptions
  4. Use context-specific prompts from the strategic direction activity to list questions that don’t have clear answers yet [e.g. “What capabilities would need to be leveraged (or created or strengthened) for us to pursue this direction?”]
  5. Work with the leadership team to answer the questions, and frame them as assumptions
  6. Rate the assumptions by relative importance (i.e. importance to achieving the vision)
  7. Rate the assumptions by relative certainty (i.e. how much evidence do we have that it is true?)
  8. Plot all the active assumptions on a 2 x 2 chart (e.g. all the assumptions that we are carrying forward into strategic planning)
  9. For each item in the upper right quadrant (most important, least certain), explore ways to “buy information” via research, experiments, or incremental development
  10. Create hypotheses statements for the proposed actions for each assumption in the quadrant
  11. Set short-term desired outcomes for the next quarter as funded bets that reference the each hypothesis
  12. Ask the teams to propose work items for the outcomes and incorporate into their plans

When facilitating this technique, consider using a whiteboard template when driving a synchronous workshop.

For remote, asynchronous exercises, consider leveraging nominal group collaboration to maximize the quality of the inputs and assessment. 

Overall, this technique is best suited for organizations seeking to bring more discovery efforts into their workload, since it builds a strong case for low-cost, incremental, exploratory, discovery work. When assumptions reveal a lack of credible evidence, it suggests that a small investment in research or discovery work could be warranted. 

Running an assumption mapping workshop, after a 1-2 year vision and strategic direction has been established, is a great way to help a leadership team navigate uncertainty as they connect strategic vision to execution.