Dan Sweet

Meet your new best friend – the Assumptions Table.

This post is for big-company people only.  If you actually make it all happen yourself – congrats – I envy you!  For the rest of us, we have to play nice with others to get things done.  At the time of this writing, I lead financial analysis and commercial delivery of new initiatives for a billion dollar P&G brand.  I work with people from many different functions and generally need to function as the second-best person from each function to do my job well.

I was skeptical when I first met the Assumptions Table. It seemed like a classic non value-added big-company CYA exercise. Write down everything important that is being assumed, put other people’s names next to all the assumptions and ta-da! – nothing is your fault anymore.

I’ve since become convinced the Assumptions Table is a critical tool in moving big projects forward in a consensus-driven multi-functional organization. However, there are a couple important rules to maximizing the value you get out of using the Assumptions Table.

1.  All critical assumptions are documented.

2.  Every assumption has an owner.

3.  All owners are associate director (insert your org’s label here) level or higher.

4.  If key assumptions aren’t being provided – use your best judgment, write it down, and assign the appropriate owner.

5.  Always capitalize Assumptions Table to make it seem more official – OK I made that one up.

The beauty of the Assumptions Table is that anyone can create one and start sharing with the team.  This serves the team by assuring everyone is on the same page, demonstrates leadership, makes team meetings more efficient, provides a central repository for key decisions made as well as key unknowns to be worked.

The seniority of your initiative owner is critical.  It doesn’t matter one bit what the sandwich guy thinks is the right amount to spend on media behind the launch next fiscal year.  It matters what the marketing director’s plan is, so ask her!  It doesn’t matter one bit what the technical packaging guy thinks the materials will cost.  It matters what the leader of the product supply organization’s purchasing people can actually deliver so ask him what the number is!  The reality is that you are usually working with their subordinates and the senior people often aren’t around to consult directly.  However, you absolutely want their business judgement applied to the problem at hand.  Forcing their subordinates to provide assumptions that will have their bosses names next to them as an owner is a good way to get them engaged in putting their best effort into the work.  I typically put the subordinates doing the grunt work in the To: line with the assumption owners in the CC: line.  I then highlight their status as owners and urge the subordinates to get their bosses to make time to review the work that has been done and weigh in with any adds/changes.

Another critical piece is that you must be willing to make best-guess assumptions yourself if the appropriate owners aren’t providing what is needed.  Often, competing priorities will dictate that your project isn’t getting the time and attention you feel it deserves from all players.  You have to make some assumptions to move forward, so make them and get moving.  You still list the owner next to the assumption that should be providing it.  As long as you publish the Assumptions Table regularly and they have plenty of opportunities to review it and provide changes, this is a completely defensible position.  “This group officially owns it but hasn’t provided anything so the team is moving forward with best guess X until told otherwise.”  This prevents the classic circular – “Hey, wait, you can’t do that – we weren’t consulted – that isn’t allowed – so-and-so will never approve” nonsense that can waste months of time in big companies.  “Actually, the Assumptions Table has shown this is what was being assumed for the last three months, take a look, so-and-so is the owner, maybe go talk your concerns with them.”

The Assumptions Table has proved itself incredibly useful a couple times for me in the last few months so I wanted to share it.  I encourage you to give it a try if you work on big projects in a collaborative multi-functional org.  Leave me a comment below with your reactions and let me know how it works for you once you try it out.