When making assumptions, you are taking a necessary first step for good planning. Recognizing that saying assumptions are a good thing contradicts what we’ve been taught, it is important that you can be comfortable with them to let you and your company reap the benefits of making good ones.
It had been a great day. We entered the city of Baghdad to a minor fire fight followed by crowds of cheering people. To see the first Americans in their town they lined the streets as we walked north through our zone. We had a limited amount of information in regard to the city or as to how the Iraqis would react to us “liberating” them. We lacked actual maps for working with; my 86 man, 22 vehicle unit had a single 8 x 11 xeroxed copy of a map that the Intel staff had dug up. The sun began to set and a call came in on the radio, “Contact, one Marine down.”
We couldn’t send an ambulance truck into an engagement so we took a couple of gun trucks to get the wounded Marine. Following our one map we moved from the Headquarters area to the Company Commander’s location and loaded his wounded. We completed the trip, followed immediately by a call that more Marines had been hurt. So turning around we headed back. On this second trip, we took some small arms fire while in route and as we loaded the wounded. During the drive back I realized that somewhere during the excitement the one map had been lost. We had three wounded in the trucks, over a mile to go in an unknown town, no light and people were shooting at us. Our cheering crowds had gone home for the night. We needed a plan B. It was time for some assumptions.
Rule of warfare; Do not to take the same path twice, as you risk being ambushed. Therein lay our dilemma, chance driving through the same streets we had already used, and been shot at from, or drive down unknown streets and risk wasting precious time getting to the medical evacuation site if we got off course.
There was not much point in getting engaged in another fire fight while delivering wounded Marines so we chose to forge ahead via a different route to evacuate them. We knew we were in a urban area and assumed that the streets like most urban areas would be roughly square. This knowledge allowed us to quickly devise a plan that would take us a couple blocks to the east, then south and then finally back west effectively taking us around our old route and putting us back on course. Circumventing the old contact points. We proceeded with this plan of action and a couple of things happened. First, we came up behind some insurgents scouting out our previous route and second, we made our way to the Evacuation site quickly, delivering our charges safely. Square streets, got to love them!
Assumptions are not just necessary in war but also in business, providing a critical starting place for planning, when we just don’t have enough information. Assumptions compensate for this missing knowledge. To be successful in an ever changing business environment one must learn to be comfortable taking the things they know, through study and experience, and make assumptions about what is likely true in the areas that remain grey. The benefit in doing so is increased confidence.
My unit would never have devised an alternative route if we didn’t believe that the streets would behave in a relatively universal way. We applied our past experience and formed some basic assumptions to drive our planning process, it paid off.
Individuals and teams need to recognize that implementing assumptions is a necessary skill. It is immeasurably easier to formulate and execute a plan using well grounded assumptions then it is to proceed without a definite course. Surmising a situation will ultimately help to accomplish goals. If you’d like to see initiative and leadership in your teams, get them comfortable with the idea of making assumptions.