Select Page

It was 2007 and I was the head of technology and architecture at a very large Australian energy company. We were in the midst of a multi-year transformation. An implementation of an enterprise resource planning (or ERP) solution requiring a complete redesign of a large number of our business processes. As you can imagine, the change management effort was huge. The goal was to replace nine billing engines with one and retire a significant number of satellite applications. The applications we were replacing include those supported by IT as well as those developed by the business, often referred to as ‘shadow IT’. This was a huge program of work costing the organisation hundreds of millions of dollars.

Sitting behind the business-facing aspects of this program was the opportunity to clean up our IT infrastructure. To cut what was – for me – a long and painful story short, I made a call on a storage technology direction that turned out to be wrong. As we put in place the technology I had chosen, it became clear it was never going to scale to meet our current, let alone future requirements.

Try as my team did to make my choice of technology work, it was clear I had made the wrong decision. My leader at the time worked with me and we managed to change to the right storage technology. We minimised the disruption my decision had on the program, the business, and its customers. As you can appreciate, I had many sleepless nights, wondering over and over how I had got it so wrong.

At first, my gut reaction was to defend my position. I had documented and communicated my assumptions, no-one had called me out on them, so I was right to make the decision I made. But after several weeks I came round to the fact this was my responsibility. I should have made sure the relevant stakeholders had understood the implications of my assumptions. Had they been aware, a conversation would have been had where they would have rejected my assumptions. I would have changed the scope of my team’s research and we would have made the right decision.

Why am I telling you this story?

Ever since this experience, I focus on the assumptions that sit behind strategic recommendations. It continues to amaze me how directors either ignore assumptions or interpret them as facts.

An assumption is something a person believes to be true but cannot provide reasonable evidence for. In project management, you must consider an assumption to be a risk until it is proven valid. Once proven valid, it is no longer an assumption, but a fact or a decision.

In the development of strategies, I rarely see assumptions referenced as risks. Instead, assumptions are statements believed to be true and rarely challenged.

In our desire to simplify messages, assumptions are often pushed into the back-up slides of a strategic presentation. These assumptions are rarely discussed unless someone asks. We pay all our attention to risks and issues, and glance over the assumptions.

Assumptions provide a great deal of insight into the level of risk an organisation is willing to accept. We often create assumptions to avoid hard conversations. It is easier to say ‘we assume key resources are available’ rather than to obtain commitment from the relevant leader of those resources. I am not suggesting that people intentionally mislead boards, what I am saying is assumptions never have the same rigour around them as risks and issues. If we were to scrutinise assumptions to the same degree we scrutinise risks and issues, our digital transformations would be better off.

What assumptions have been made and how is your program team verifying those assumptions?