A Tool For the Future – Assumption-Based Planning

The future is one of the most fascinating and talked about subjects today. You can see the future being practiced on a daily basis as people plan events and develop business ventures in a global dimension. Understanding the future is no longer achieved by performing magic or reading someone’s palm but is now recognized as a social science that can be identified as Strategic Foresight, Futures’ Studies, and Futuring (just to name a few), and becoming instrumental in developing new concepts and ideas in the fields of nanotechnology, neurotechnology, biotechnology, and electronics technology for the future.

One of the tools derived from strategic foresight or planning is called Assumption-Based Planning (ABP). This tool can be used to help people and planners from all walks of life recognize and incorporate assumptions in a plan during times of great uncertainty.  James Dewar defines ABP as, “a tool designed for improving the robustness and adaptability of plans-reducing the number of avoidable surprises in any plan or planning.” You may be asking yourself at this moment how assumption-based planning can accommodate you for your future? The key is in knowing how to recognize assumptions through creative thinking and include the assumptions in your plans to avoid surprises that could destroy your plans. This article will demonstrate how assumption-based planning can become a tool to circumvent the element of surprise and utilize creative thinking and planning in the development of your own ABP.
Origination of ABP
The Rand Corporation developed the ABP in 1990 to assist the US Army in trend-based planning. James A. Dewar explains that the ABP is a “post-planning” tool (recognizing that planning is an iterative process) that concentrates on the assumption that there are possibilities in which a plan can fail; preparing for alternatives that affect an already-developed plan. “Specifically, the ABP works to decrease the risks that assumptions represent.” ABP originated as a five-step plan defining ways on how a plan could fail. Dewar maps the assumptions below.
Step 1 – Load-bearing and vulnerable assumptions – Load-bearing assumption is like a load-bearing beam; pull it out and the roof caves in. Vulnerable assumption is one that could fail within the expected lifetime of the plan. Both of these assumptions can resort to an alternative plan.
Step 2 – In a broken assumption, the hedging action prepares the planner for failure. 
Step 3 – Signposts – warning signs that can be used to monitor assumptions that are mostly likely to produce surprises.
Step 4 – Shaping actions – help the assumptions play out to the planners’ satisfaction.
Step 5 – Hedging actions – prepares the planner for the possibility that the assumption will fail despite efforts to secure it.
Today’s global leaders need to consider the ever changing global environment and incorporate assumptions into their strategic foresight planning. On a personal basis, parents and children can learn to develop an ABP utilizing Dewar’s model, which can prepare them in creating and incorporating assumptions in the development of a futures’ plan for their activities, events, and their future. On a personal dimension, let’s visualize how an ABP can be applied to a family reunion event.
Forecasting a Family Plan Using an ABP
Let’s take the ABP into a personal level utilizing the imagination and creative abilities of the family members who will plan a family reunion. Imagine your family is planning a family reunion one year from today’s date. This is the plan; you incorporate assumptions into your post plan to develop a plan that ‘might’ meet the satisfaction of the family. Here are the assumptions:

  • Consider the family members that need to ask for time off from employers, which employers may not grant.
  • Consider travel costs over a person’s budget.
  • Consider the additional expenses each family will incur in case an unexpected emergency occurs and cancels their travel plans.
  • Consider the donations needed from each family to cover expenses for reunion and family member unable to supply. Will you pick up their tab?
  • Consider the possibility of some family members cancelling at the last minute.
  • Consider family members that do not contribute their part financially and need to be confronted.
  • Consider if hotel accommodations do meet with standards of family members.
  • Consider if reunion plans do not accommodate all age groups.
  • Consider any health or meal restrictions.
  • Consider available health professionals locale in case of emergency.
  • Consider activities for children and adults.

I believe you are seeing the picture of an ABP. It is taking all possible, probable causes and creating assumptive behaviors and/or actions that could alter a strategic foresight plan.  If you write out Dewar’s model, and you are a visual learner, the model can be converted into a visible table that can benefit both planner and family member. Taking the location as part of the assumptive process, the ABP helps identify the ‘what if’s’ to the reunion’s ABP. Consider some of the assumptions in the example below: 

  • Load-bearing vulnerable – Location provides for indoor and outdoor events
  • Broken assumptions – Location is vulnerable to inclement weather and power outages
  • Sign-Post – Family reads reviews of previous customers
  • Shaping Actions – Family asks location manager to guarantee generator in case of power outage.
  • Hedging Actions – Family makes back-up generator reservation in case with 24-hour cancellation allowance.

People use the ABP on a daily bases and do not realize the creative abilities involved in the assumptions’ process. From the personal spectrum to the corporate environment, the ABP is an adaptable instrument that can benefit those who utilize the plan. Regardless of the structure of a leadership environment, whether top to bottom initiatives or flat, leaders, corporate executives, and everyday people can adapt the ABP process into their daily agenda. Cornish wrote about the lessons learned from great explorers such as Lewis and Clark, for example, in his book. He mentioned how these famous explorers used maps and ‘hearsay’ about the territory to develop their expedition. There may have been a prototype of an ABP in their plans which allowed them to consider assumptions and work around failures to successfully complete their ventures. Whatever the case may be, they were able to succeed and accomplish the task set before them.

Can an ABP tool work for you? Do you have the ability and imagination to interject assumptive planning into your daily agendas, work plans, strategic plans? The Book of Jeremiah, chapter 29, verse 11 in the Old Testament states, “For I know the plans that I ‘have for you’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope…” If we can draw inspiration that our plans can be successful, then tools such as the ABP can help us make our dreams come true. I like to compare the ABP to an apple, you can count the seeds in an apple but can you count the apples that will come from the seeds when they are planted and produce fruit? Creativity and imagination will forge the future of successful planning instruments.