Test Your Assumptions Shaping the Future
This blog is by Prescient Associate Futurist Kate Colwell
Knowing how to test your assumptions is critical to guide good organizational planning. By permitting yourself to think critically, you can question which underlying assumptions are still serving you and which require adaptation. In this way, your organization can open itself to transformative possibilities and start building a more resilient future.
It can be uncomfortable to discuss underlying assumptions, especially those that exist at such a magnitude that they shape industrial, governmental, or cultural contexts. But almost every institution will interact with stakeholders from a variety of worldviews and diverse experiences. Just the act of questioning assumptions can help you consider a wider range of possible futures as the dynamics between these stakeholders morph over time. The more scenarios you consider, the more ideas you can generate for strategic planning purposes.
But how to test assumptions is not necessarily a clear process.
Method to Test Your Assumptions
Here are three steps to test your assumptions.
Step 1: Identify your underlying assumptions.
Look for one-sided statements that have a strong sentiment but weak evidence. These could be staunchly optimistic or pessimistic. They could also make generalizations about industries, institutions, countries, or groups of individuals.
Look for gaps in logic. Do claims show your work, or do they jump to conclusions? Assume that all claims are arguments to be proven or disproven.
Consider the point of view of your organization. If it were a persona or fictional character, how would you describe your organization? What is their age, gender, nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, profession, and income level? What do they read, listen to, and watch to stay informed? Who do they ask for advice on a regular basis? This creative exercise can help you step outside of your organization and look at it from a new vantage point.
Step 2: Test your assumptions with a “red team”
No matter how common-sense they may seem, they are beliefs if you do not base your assumptions on current, accurate information. The only way to tell the difference between belief and fact is to invite critical thinking.
Consider your organizational persona again. With whom do they not regularly interact? What do they not usually read? Where do they not often spend time? This creative exercise can help you see organizational blind spots in information-gathering.
Identify what perspectives are missing and invite people with these missing perspectives to the table. These could be people from within your organization who are not regularly consulted, professionals from different industries, colleagues in other countries, even organizations with an opposing view to your own. Present your assumptions to a “red team,” or group representing an opposing force, and challenge it to look for weaknesses in your argument.
If they find flaws, take their feedback into serious consideration. Perhaps your assumptions are valid, but your evidence is sparse; perhaps your beliefs are based on facts that are no longer true. In either case, these assumptions require new research.
Step 3: Generate alternative possibilities to explore multiple futures
Now you are prepared to undertake the most creative task. Step away from your organizational pride, and consider the possibility that the assumptions of your work are wrong. If that were true, what risks would continuing to plan with these assumptions pose?
With diverse stakeholders, build out future scenarios in which these assumptions prove partially or wholly false. What does the world look like in each of these scenarios? How have economic, political, social, technological, and environmental systems transformed? How is life different for people in these systems?
You can learn a lot by imagining your organization existing in these futures. How has your organization changed? In which ways were you prepared or unprepared to adapt? Where are your capability gaps? What is the organization’s role in your industry, society, or world?
Giving yourself permission to test your assumptions and engage in futuristic thinking can bring present decisions into perspective. No one can know the future, but by exploring possible futures, we can better identify risks and opportunities to inform strategic decisions in the present.
Here is an example of how to uncover and test your assumptions, especially deeply ingrained ones. Prescient used the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2040 report (we’ll call it the NIC report for the rest of this article). This report is a valuable source of information on systemic forces, societal responses, and emerging dynamics shaping the international system. However, the report scenarios for what the world may look like in 2040 also contained assumptions worth testing.
Case Study: Test Assumptions about the geopolitical future
Step 1: We uncovered three key assumptions:
- Automation will help people more than it will hurt.
- Continuous economic growth is the goal in any context.
- The U.S. interpretation of democracy is the best form of government.
All three of these assumptions are deeply ingrained in contemporary narratives, and it makes sense that they should permeate the NIC report. However, it is a valuable exercise to consider what points of view these assumptions exclude and use them as a jumping-off point to test assumptions and create alternative scenarios.
We can name unspoken assumptions as the points of view driving arguments within Global Trends 2040. The report advocates for faster and more widespread adoption of automation to continue to grow the economy and maintain geopolitical dominance. We can also identify assumptions by paying attention to what is not included. The National Intelligence Council provides inadequate information about the danger of automation to many specialized workers, the harmful effects of continuous production on climate disruption, or critiques of the current structures of government.
Step 2: We stress-tested these assumptions from different points of view.
The NIC report assumes that more widespread adoption of automation technologies will improve society. But is this true for everyone in society? How might an automated future of work affect marginalized populations from lower socioeconomic backgrounds with limited access to higher education and retraining programs? The World Economic Forum finds that “only 21% of businesses report being able to make use of public funds to support their employees through reskilling and upskilling.” What consequences will we see if the U.S. government does not support displaced workers?
The report assumes that continuous economic growth will always lead to progress. But what if that is not true? Political ecologists, including Jason Hickel, writing in Nature Energy, have demonstrated that “past a certain point, which high-income nations have long exceeded, the correlation between GDP and social indicators break down.” If the United States fails to consider post-growth climate mitigation scenarios, what ramifications could follow? Alternatively, what if we viewed progress from a different vantage? For example, what if we measured progress by the reduction of climate threats or increase in human happiness?
As a product of the United States government, the report is naturally biased to have faith in America’s governing system. But what alternative kinds of democratic governing systems are worth considering? According to a 2020 study by the Pew Research Center, only 39% of Americans are satisfied with the function of democracy in the United States, placing the U.S. below the median of 34 surveyed countries. By contrast, more than 65% of citizens are satisfied with their democracy in Sweden, India, the Netherlands, Poland, and Canada. Could the United States learn any lessons from these democracies to serve more of its citizens? Or should the United States preserve its inherited government structure and processes at all costs?
Step 3: We considered how the future might look if we tested our initial assumptions, and considered what could happen if the opposite assumptions were the case.
Instead of only improving society, widespread automation could exacerbate inequality. Without heavy government investment in retraining and reskilling workers, many underserved communities will be left behind by automation. Widening inequality could lead to decreased confidence in government and increased affiliation with more subdivided and radical identity groups. The gaps between privileged and under-resourced populations could lead to new extremist threats on United States soil. This scenario helps identify a potential link between educational investments and domestic terror threat reduction.
Instead of only accelerating human progress, growth-focused strategies could aggravate humanitarian crises. For example, prioritizing economic growth over sustainability could continue to fuel climate-driven disasters and generate refugee crises of unprecedented magnitude. This scenario introduces the idea that increased federal investment in renewable energy, stricter emission standards, and sustainable production incentives could help mitigate climate refugee crises.
Instead of only preserving western geopolitical dominance, the status quo could weaken democracy’s ability to meet new challenges. Failing to adapt makes a system more fragile and less influential. If the United States government fails to think critically about what traditions in its interpretation of democracy do not serve future national goals, then it will become more vulnerable to collapse. Political leaders’ lack of interest and will to continuously evaluate whether policies are fair, inclusive, and equitable could lead to increased polarization and gridlock. Seeing a house in disorder, the international political ecosystem may increasingly look to leadership from other countries with more foresight.
Seeing these possibilities could help the U.S. government reconsider its priorities, expand its perspectives, advocate for crucial investments, avert potential harm, and build new relationships. Every organization, whether government, NGO, or a private company, can benefit from strategic foresight.
If you’re interested in diving deeper into the National Intelligence Council’s report, join Prescient for a free, virtual event on November 17, 2021: Global Futures through a Nonstate Lens.