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#018 - Manage your assumptions before they manage you
Welcome to Issue #018 of The Forcing Function - your guide to delivering the right outcomes for your projects and your users.
🤔 Made me think: When stakeholder assumptions reinforce their worldview.
👨💻 Worth checking out: Lactose tolerance is an evolutionary puzzle.
A lesson from my flawed assumption that I'd be OK with a mocktail.
One moment I was sitting there enjoying myself. The next, my heart rate was racing.
My Apple Watch chirped. I already knew it was alerting me to an abnormally high heart rate. I could already feel my heart pounding away in my chest as it was going to burst out. I glanced to see how fast it was going - it had already spiked to over 135 bpm and was still climbing.
The last time I got this alert I was nervously giving a town hall presentation. This time, I wasn't at work or even doing a cardio workout. I was in one of my favourite restaurants having a lazy lunch with my wife.
The reason turned out to be my seemingly innocent soda drink.
Non alcoholic ≠ safe for the alcohol intolerant
Coming from Hong Kong ancestry, like many others, I suffer from the Asian flush reaction where I go bright red with drinking alcohol.
However, unlike the majority, I am so intolerant that I skip the drunk part and just collapse - even after just a few sips. A hypothesis that was robustly "tested" by my friends at our student union. So, I never drink and I even avoid it in food if it's not fully cooked off.
So, what was up with my non-alcoholic pineapple soda? Acetaldehyde.
Whilst it didn't contain alcohol, it had high levels of this toxin. The same toxin that your liver initially produces as it works to remove the alcohol from your body. The very toxin, which my genetics can't break down properly or quick enough, that causes me to collapse.
Unbeknownst to me, pineapple is high in acetaldehyde. According to this study, 50% higher than beer. And if that wasn't high enough, the drink had been fortified by the week-long fermentation of the pineapple.
I, thankfully, didn't collapse at the restaurant.
With the aid of my wife, I managed to stumble home where I did pass out for the rest of the day. I was fortunate that my flawed assumption didn't lead to anything more serious. Even if it was disconcerting whilst it was happening.
Assumptions are necessarily endemic
Whilst I made a flawed assumption about that drink, I don't believe that all assumptions are inherently bad.
Buster Benson, creator of 750 Words, came up with this list of four conundrums that "limit our own intelligence and the intelligence of every other person, collective, organism, machine, alien, or imaginable god”:
There’s too much information.
There’s not enough meaning.
There’s not enough time and resources [to make perfect decisions].
There’s not enough memory [to store everything].
I find this a useful framework to explain why we make assumptions: so that we can quickly make sense of the unknown and the unclear.
When confronted with these conundrums we have to make a choice about how much time and energy we want (or can afford) to expend to get the answer versus just assuming to keep our lives simple.
These heuristics are not perfect but, I'd argue it's better being wrong some of the time than being overwhelmed all of the time.
Managing assumptions on projects
On a regulatory project to make the UK the first country to enable Open Banking, I was the lead business analyst in the Salesforce team. We were responsible for building a system to manage the registration and the lifecycle of the participants (e.g. banks).
Whilst every software delivery project makes assumptions, the twist here was that the regulations were so new that the unknown was even more unknown. Here's a few examples of what we had to assume:
Too much information: Given the parallels of this project with another regulatory project we had delivered a few years previously, we assumed that the core processes were approximately the same.
Not enough meaning: As the regulations were so new, we made educated guesses about what was intended. Our guesses were informed by our assumed view of how the regulations should work and our assumed belief in how they would work in practice.
Not enough time and resources: For regulatory projects, there's always a hard deadline that you absolutely cannot miss. So, as we prioritised speed, we assumed that we had the capacity and the capability to fix forward and still deliver everything else in scope for that deadline.
Not enough memory: One critical requirement was to immediately revoke any participant that broke the rules to minimise consumer risk. It was impractical to continuously check all possible data points for this. So we had to assume that our subset would be a good enough proxy for the data points we couldn't monitor.
We recognised that with the narrow envelope of time, scope, and resources we had to make assumptions. But we didn't just learn to live with them, we leveraged our awareness of them too.
As the popular idiom goes: When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me". So, in making assumptions, we took three actions to counteract their downside risks:
Cataloguing assumptions in a register so that by writing it down, the assumption being made was clear, it could be owned, and it could be regularly reviewed as new information came to light.
Testing each assumption across multiple stakeholders. This provided both a shared understanding of the issue and surfaced different viewpoints.
Doing a worst case scenario of each assumption to understand which need close monitoring or even analytical work to turn the assumption into verifiable facts.
To paraphrase a popular time management saying: "if you don't manage your assumptions, then they will manage you and for the worse".
🤔 Made me think
When stakeholder assumptions reinforce their worldview.
It's not just project teams that make assumptions.
Our stakeholders do too and it's not helped when they unknowingly have confirmation bias. This is when they live in an information bubble - only looking for what aligns with their worldview. Ignoring anything that doesn't fit.
Even worse is when they knowingly have this bias and weaponise it to further their agenda. Treat those stakeholders with caution.
🧑💻Worth checking out
🔗 Lactose tolerance is an evolutionary puzzle | The Atlantic
As much "fun" I have with being intolerant to alcohol, I'm also intolerant to lactose.
A commonly held belief is that humanity's ability to tolerate lactose beyond childhood developed because our prehistoric ancestors drank milk in adulthood. As a result, our bodies developed a genetic trait to digest lactose.
A study by the University College London showed another explanation which flips that assumption around - at least for Europe.
Essentially, it was the survival of the fittest. Those with the gene trait to digest milk were more likely to survive famine and thus pass on the trait to their descendants. Those who didn't, didn't.
🖖Until next Thursday ...
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