Jane Buckley, August 9th, 2019

Assumptions make up a significant percentage of every person’s everyday thinking. Most are subconscious, implicit and go without recognition (when I leave work, my car will be where I left it this morning). Others rise to the surface of our awareness and we can use that awareness to our advantage by checking the validity of that assumption; for example, I my ask my partner if my assumption that he purchased milk while at the grocery store is correct.

All assumptions represent some amount of risk, suggesting the following questions:

  • why do some assumptions emerge from our subconscious to be checked while others remain hidden?
  • how can we best surface assumptions and risks for the purpose of program planning and evaluation?

In order to answer these questions, we must first acknowledge that assumptions are an adaptive mechanism the brain uses to manage the sheer volume of stimuli and information that it takes on every day. If I had to constantly monitor my car’s position, I wouldn’t be able to write this blog or do much of anything else. Assumptions are the cognitive short-cuts that allow us to be so productive and creative in our thinking.

It makes sense that our brains are always looking for ways to consolidate and use assumptions as much as possible to move us through our environment and lives more efficiently. Following this reasoning, the only reason we would consciously identify and address an assumption is because the risk associated with that assumption may supersede the advantages it offers. This is, in part, an answer to the first question:

  • Assumptions naturally become explicit when their associated risk is a) known and b) understood to be greater than the advantage of maintaining the assumption

To understand how this assumption-risk dynamic plays out in program work, we need to unpack the idea of risk a bit more.

When we are thinking about community development programs, (programs focused on health, economic development, youth development education, etc.) risks include program conditions or components that might:

  1. inhibit positive outcomes
  2. do harm to beneficiaries
  3. waste resources

These three types of risk (among other more context-specific risks) endanger program success and do supersede any advantage gained by maintaining an associated assumption. Therefore, it is critical that programs uncover assumptions associated with the various types of risk so that they can be addressed (checked or consciously accepted) by program staff and leaders.

It can be hard for program staff to uncover assumptions that underly the programs that they work on day-in and day-out. Even when program staff understand the role and typology of assumptions (paradigmatic, prescriptive, causal), it can be hard to identify them without a more targeted path in to the subconscious. For some program teams, using the idea of risk is an effective way of facilitating this brainstorm. For example, one might ask, “What are the outcomes, outside our formal program plans, that have to hold true in order for us to meet our objectives?” Or, “Why do we think this is the best approach given our available resources?” This brings us to an answer to the second question:

  • It is critical that program professionals, who have context and program specific expertise, intentionally engage in surfacing implicit program assumptions in preparation for planning, evaluation and learning. This can be accomplished either by brainstorming assumptions directly and identifying associated risks or by brainstorming possible program risks and identifying the associated assumptions.


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