Strategic assumption surfacing and testing: integrating world views

Description

Strategic assumption surfacing and testing is a method for integrating world views developed in an organisational context. It is based on the premise that ‘[w]e all live our lives according to the assumptions we make about ourselves and our world. To cope better, we need to surface those assumptions and to challenge them. New assumptions then become springboards to effective change’ (Mason and Mitroff 1981:vii, emphasis in original).

This method assists participants to understand a problematic situation and explore strategies for dealing with it. As the name indicates, its central element is bringing to the surface the assumptions that underlie people’s preferred approaches to an issue, and challenging them. Sometimes this challenging results in a particular strategy being discarded and participants adopting a competing one. On other occasions, however, integration occurs through the synthesis of previously inconsistent assumptions, resulting in a new strategy that accommodates the differences between those held initially, and which is stronger than the components from which it arises.

Four principles underlie the strategic assumption surfacing and testing method: it is adversarial, participative, integrative and ‘managerial mind supporting’.

  • Adversarial—based on the belief that judgments about ill-structured problems are best made after consideration of opposing perspectives.

  • Participative—it seeks to involve different groupings and levels in an organisation, because the knowledge and resources needed to solve complex problems and implement solutions will be distributed around a number of individuals and groups in the organisation.

  • Integrative—on the assumption that the differences thrown up by the adversarial and participative processes must eventually be brought together again in a higher order synthesis, so that an action plan can be produced.

  • Managerial mind supporting—believing that managers exposed to different assumptions will possess a deeper understanding of an organisation, its policies and ‘problems’. (Flood and Jackson 1991:123–4)

The four steps used in the method are as follows:

  • Group formation: gathering as many as possible of those involved in, and affected by, a situation and splitting them into small groups according to their views on key issues. It is important to minimise the conflicts within each group and to maximise the differences between groups. The orientation to the problem held by each group should be directly opposed by at least one other group.

  • Assumption surfacing and rating: identifying the preferred strategy or position that each group is adopting, then revealing and quantifying (if possible) the assumptions on which it is based. Techniques used include stakeholder analysis, assumption specification and assumption rating.

  • Intra-group and inter-group dialectical debate: each group developing the case for its position and then discussing them all in a single, large group. The process is dialectical ‘if it examines a situation completely and logically from two different points of view’ (Mason and Mitroff 1981:129). A key analytical question that facilitates dialogue in this stage is ‘What assumptions of the other groups do each group find the most troubling?’.

  • Final synthesis: achieving an accommodation among participants to find a practical way forward. Discussion of key assumptions leads them to be modified and a new strategy to be developed, based on the modified and agreed-on assumptions. This is the process through which the visions and world views of the participants become integrated. If agreement cannot be reached—if synthesis is not possible—participants might agree on a program of research or other action to further clarify assumptions and/or to try out a particular strategy and evaluate it. Knowledge gained from those steps can shed further light on the conflicting assumptions, facilitating subsequent synthesis of positions (adapted from Flood and Jackson 1991; Mason and Mitroff 1981; Midgley 2000).

This approach to strategic planning has been contrasted, by its originators, with the two dominant approaches—namely, the ‘expert’ approach, in which an organisation establishes a planning unit to largely do the managers’ work for them, and the ‘devil’s advocate’ approach, in which middle managers prepare and submit plans to senior managers for cross-examination (Mason and Mitroff 1981:127–9).

The strategic assumption surfacing and testing method was developed as a contribution to strategic planning. It has great potential where conflicting views on the nature of a problem and what to do about it are held, where the proponents are willing to work in groups to explore these issues and are open to hearing and understanding others’ views, with the aim of finding accommodation between the originally conflicting positions. Being willing to reveal, explore and expose to criticism the assumptions that one brings to the process, and a concomitant willingness to challenge others’ assumptions, are essential to the achievement of synthesis.

Example of its use in integration

Despite the potential of the strategic assumption surfacing and testing method for research integration, we have not been able to find any recent cases that illustrate this well with respect to the specific role of research. As a result, the following case example comes from the business sector.

Business: seeking agreement on the core operational strategy of a Cooperative Development Agency in the United States

What was the context for the integration?

A Cooperative Development Agency in the United States—known as ‘Winterton’ for the purposes of the case study—had the aim of fostering and promoting commercial and industrial activity in its county. As with all Cooperative Development Agencies, it worked to achieve its goal through cooperative enterprises—that is, business entities owned and usually managed by the people who worked in them (Flood and Jackson 1991).

What was the integration aiming to achieve and who was intended to benefit?

Agency staff wished to analyse the agency’s methods of operating, improve its marketing activities and identify ways to more efficiently serve the people in the county in which it was located. They wished to identify the optimal organisational structure for attaining its goals. Their overarching goal was to improve the quality of services to the people of the county while remaining true to the values and norms of the cooperative movement.

What was being integrated?

The staff of the agency worked together with the aim of developing agreement about how the organisation should be structured so as to best implement the shared values of the cooperative movement. Different staff members had strongly conflicting visions about the optimal organisational arrangements, and different stakes in the outcomes, which needed to be synthesised for the organisation to achieve its goals within its business environment.

How was the integration undertaken and who did the integration?

The staff of the Cooperative Development Agency, with the support of external expert facilitators, attempted to integrate their world views. They used the soft systems methodology to do this. At an early point, it became clear that participants in the process fell into two opposing factions, one of which favoured a top-down approach to the agency’s operations and the other a bottom-up approach. The top-down approach was one in which the agency identified business opportunities and recruited people into cooperatives to respond to those opportunities. The bottom-up approach, more closely reflecting the norms of cooperatives, emphasised assisting people thinking about engaging in business to form cooperatives and then seek out business opportunities.

Strategic assumption surfacing and testing was used to deal with this deep conflict; the aim was to do so quickly, without getting into the details of the governance arrangements but simply to reach agreement—a synthesis of assumptions—so that the soft systems methodology exercise could continue. In this sense, the strategic assumption surfacing and testing method was nested within the dominant soft systems method.

The standard four stages of the method were followed. Group formation presented no challenges, with the staff readily falling into two groups: one strongly favouring the top-down approach and the other the bottom-up approach to the operation of the agency. The two groups were separated and each went through the assumption surfacing stage by using stakeholder analysis, assumption specification and assumption rating. The two groups identified different groups of stakeholders and the assumptions linked to each. For example, the top-down supporters identified the unemployed as stakeholders, along with an assumption about the credibility of the agency, in the eyes of funding bodies, with respect to job creation. The bottom-up group identified potential clients as stakeholders along with the assumption that they lacked group cohesion. The two groups joined together again for dialectical debate. They found little common ground and little ability to modify their differing lists of key stakeholders and the assumptions linked to each, with the result that no synthesis emerged from the dialectical debate.

What was the outcome of the integration?

Although the process did not produce synthesis of the assumptions of participants, it nonetheless had some positive outcomes: ‘Consensus was…reached on particular matters such as the need to seek out sources of information about business opportunities, to research other top-down experiences, and on the desirability of some experiments with a modified top-down approach (which were, indeed, carried out)’ (Flood and Jackson 1991:132).

Commentary

This example embeds strategic assumption surfacing and testing within a broader soft systems methodology. It is an excellent demonstration of the point we make more generally about how a specific method can be used to resolve a challenge discovered when a method for achieving broader understanding is used. In this case, however, it was not successful in resolving the conflict that became evident.

It is noteworthy that we could not find an example of the application of this method in a research integration context. It is, however, conceivable how it could be used in this way. If we consider, for example, a research question about how the health sector should respond to violent clients, we could imagine bringing together various stakeholders and exposing their assumptions about clients’ responsibility for violence. We might also add disciplinary perspectives—for example, from psychology, sociology and clinical research.

This dialogue method is also noteworthy for being intentionally adversarial: dialectic debate about the validity of people’s assumptions is at its core.

Origins and genealogy

This method is part of what Midgley (2000:193) refers to as the second wave of systems thinking in which ‘“systems” were no longer seen as real world entities, but as constructs to aid understanding. The emphasis was on dialogue, mutual appreciation and the inter-subjective construction of realities.’ Mason and Mitroff (1981) adapted the approach to systems thinking explicated by C. West Churchman, turning some of his ideas into the step-by-step strategic assumption surfacing and testing method.

Further reading on strategic assumption surfacing and testing

Dash, D. 2007, SAST Methodology, Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar, India, <http://www1.ximb.ac.in/users/fac/dpdash/dpdash.nsf/pages/CP_SAST>

Flood, R. L. and Jackson, M. C. 1991, Creative Problem Solving: Total systems intervention, Wiley, Chichester, New York.

Mason, R. O. and Mitroff, I. I. 1981, Challenging Strategic Planning Assumptions: Theory, cases, and techniques, Wiley, New York.

Midgley, G. 2000, Systemic Intervention: Philosophy, methodology, and practice, Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York.