Strategic Assumptions Surfacing and Testing
SAST is a process which reveals the underlying assumptions of a policy or plan and helps create a map for exploring them. SAST incorporates the following principles:
- Adversarial - based on the premise that the best way to test an assumption is to oppose it.
- Participative - based on the premise that the knowledge and resources necessary to solve and implement the solution to a complex problem is distributed among a group of individuals.
- Integrative - based on the premise that a unified set of assumptions and action plan are needed to guide decision making, and that what comes out of the adversarial and participative elements can be unified.
- Managerial mind supporting - based on the premise that exposure to assumption deepens the manager's insight into an organisation and its policy, planning, and strategic problems.
The Five Phases of SAST
The above principles are employed throughout the five phases of the SAST process, which are:
1. Group formation.
Key individuals from across company functions are formed into small (6 - 8 person) groups. Each group should consist of individuals who get on well with one another (minimise conflict). Each group should differ in its particular knowledge and problem perspectives (maximise differences). Each group should have a different orientation, perspective or policy option from which to tackle the issue.
2. Assumption surfacing and rating.
Each group meets separately and begins to identify the assumptions inherent in the issue (from their viewpoint). A way in may be to identify as many stakeholders as possible. List all the assumptions generated.
3. Within group dialectic debate.
Firstly, each group now eliminates irrelevant assumptions by asking themselves "If the opposite of this assumptions is true, does it have any significant bearing on the issue?" If the answer is "No", then the assumption is not very relevant to the problem. Any assumption accepted as a strategic premise must meet two criteria:
(a). It should have a significant bearing on the outcome of the strategy chosen and implemented. (Importance)
(b). It should be as "self evident" and "certain to be true" as possible. (Certainty)
The assumptions are now ranked for importance by the group and entered in an Importance / Certainty matrix. If a more precise scaling is required here, the Analytical Hierarchy Process (AHP) is used to carry out pairwise comparison (each individual group member) and to calculate normalised weightings from the combined data. The individual data should also be open for discussion at this stage.
The resulting data is now plotted on a graph or 2 x 2 matrix whose scales are (relatively important / unimportant) & (relatively certain / uncertain).
Assumptions that are both important and certain become the pivotal or "bedrock" assumptions for the policy. Assumptions that are important but uncertain may require research. assumptions in the other two quadrants may well be dropped. using the graph as an aid, each group should debate "which are the pivotal assumptions?" and come up with a prioritised list of pivotal assumptions.
4. Between groups dialectic debate.
The groups are brought together and a spokesperson for each group presents their importance / certainty graph and pivotal assumptions. Only clarifying questions are permitted at this stage. When all the groups have presented, all the assumptions are combined on one slide and thrown open for evaluation, debate and discussion. Agreed assumptions are extracted as premises from which to proceed, while contentious assumptions are debated further and may be modified to achieve agreement.
5. Final synthesis.
All participants are asked to propose assumptions to resolve outstanding controversies. If no agreement is reached on an assumption it becomes an issue requiring further investigation. Each issue and key assumption is subjected to further analysis to adduce the data and warrants (what beliefs the assumption is based on) that underlie its claim. Where data is inadequate, business intelligence and management information systems activities are undertaken to acquire the specific data necessary to resolve the strategic issue. A planning book is produced that contains -
(a) A prioritised list of the most critical issues management faces as revealed by SAST.
(b) An assessment of the current state of knowledge with respect to the solution of these issues.
(c) A list of current and planned information-producing activities designed to improve the state of knowledge relevant to the critical issues.
When the policy decision must be made, the results of the information producing activities are collected and related to the issues for which they were undertaken. A final debate is held and a judgement is made on the best set of assumptions from which to proceed. Finally, an appropriate policy is chosen, based on the new information and the synthesis that emerged.
SAST was developed in the US by Richard Mason, Ian Mitroff, and Jim Emshoff.
- Mason RO, Mitroff II, 1981, Challenging Strategic Planning Assumptions: theory, cases and techniques, New York, Wiley.