Separate strategic assumptions from goals

Photo by Steve HardyPreviously I wrote about the importance of having a clear goal, in the form of a value statement. But in practice it’s tempting to confuse a goal with what I call a “strategic assumption”—and we shouldn’t do that.

When I ask a project team what their goal is they usually suggest a number of things, and most of the time one or two people will say something like “To replace our legacy system” or “Have the product be driven by user needs, not our own needs”. These are all good ideas, but they are almost certainly not the goal the project. We are replacing our legacy system in order to achieve something greater. We being driven by user need in order to be successful at something else. They are important things, but they are not the goals.

People often suggest these kinds of things because they believe that if we don’t make them explicit then they’ll be lost. If our goal is (say) to improve customer response time then they worry that we’ll do it by tinkering round the edges, or approaching it in some tactical way that misses the opportunity of replacing the legacy system.

This is a reasonable concern, and that’s why we need to call out strategic assumptions. Our goal is the benefit we’re aiming to achieve. A strategic assumption is a statement of how we’re going to achieve it. It’s strategic, because it describes a long term approach that will change the way we work—we’ll have a new platform (even though it’s not the cheapest solution), we’ll work in a more user-focused manner (even if it seems more costly in the short term), etc. It is likely to be determined by wider organisational choices. It’s an assumption because we don’t know for sure how it will turn out. It’s an act of faith that we should work in this way—albeit backed up by analysis, research, and so on—and reassessing it is outside the scope of our project, in the hands of higher authorities.

Our goals are the benefits we are trying to achieve, and what we are accountable for. Our strategic assumptions are the parameters within which we work… but they’re not the point of the work.

Photo by Steve Hardy