Working with Assumptions and Biases

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Eleanor founded Eleanor A. Smith & Associates in 1997 to provide strategic consulting services to foundations and non-profit organizations. She is passionate about helping leaders envision the ultimate social impact they seek, clarifying how they intend to create such change and devising user-friendly ways to achieve it.

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I recently participated in an American Evaluation Association (AEA) webinar called “Working with Assumptions to Unravel the Tangle of Complexity, Values, Cultural Responsiveness”. Its content resonated deeply with me because I regularly include an Assumptions Exercise in planning processes I lead with clients and have found it to be a powerful learning opportunity. It’s especially critical when groups are undergoing significant organizational change processes.

Basically, assumptions are what we believe to be true. They include ideas, beliefs, values and “evidence.” Surfacing and examining assumptions is critical in program evaluation, strategic planning, program development and other sense making and change efforts. If left below the surface, unspoken and/or unshared assumptions could derail a nonprofit’s best efforts to bring about positive organizational development and/or social change.

The AEA instructors stated, “Assumptions have consequences…. It is impossible to make wise decisions about invisible assumptions, and unexamined assumptions are a risk to program success and useful evaluation.”

Teachable Moments

The webinar instructors–Apollo Nkwake, Katrina Bledsoe and Jonny Morell–noted that explicit and implicit assumptions inhabit nonprofit leaders’ brains and routinely appear in mission and vision statements, grant proposals and reports, websites, logic models, theories of change, program and evaluation plans and many other places. Below the level of consciousness, implicit assumptions are closely connected to implicit biases—which they noted were “one of the principal forces that energize widespread inequality in our society.” It is imperative that organizational leaders–and consultants who work with them– become aware of their own biases that may be perpetuating inequality or holding them back. (See my 2017 post “Examining Bias in Evaluation”)

I witnessed an implicit bias surface during a theory of change project I facilitated with the board of an organization serving immigrant families. In identifying the assumptions underlying their draft theory of change, a long-time board member stated that she believed the work they did was important because it helped “assimilate the families to American culture.” Though no one called her out in the moment, the founder/board president later told me that she had taken aside this board member to talk with her about the group’s purpose of economic empowerment–not assimilation, a term fraught with the long history of forced assimilation of minority groups. The exercise provided an important teachable moment and helped bring this board member into closer alignment with the rest of the board. It is not uncommon for planning efforts (often part of meaningful organizational change efforts) to result in the resignation of board members who did not share the values—a type of implicit bias—of the rest of their organization’s leadership. Though painful, this can bring about improved alignment of crucial resources.

In another example, an outspoken member of a theory of change planning team I worked with said he believed that partnering with other organizations was NOT an essential strategy for achieving social impact. After the group had surfaced a large set of assumptions, I asked them to review the list and, one-by-one, identify those they felt they could not support. We learned that the team was unable to support the assumption that the organization could accomplish its ambitious goals without partners. Not only did this exercise result in an important revision of the draft TOC model, it provided greater clarity and consensus around the important role of “collective impact.”

Other groups I’ve worked with have identified shared values, such as broad commitment to social justice, as well as common frames of reference from field expertise (e.g., trauma-informed care). One organization reviewed the roughly 50 assumptions identified during the planning exercise, noticed themes and created a set of “guiding principles” –values and ideas–that inform and undergird all of their work.

Questions to Surface Assumptions

To get the ball rolling, I usually start by asking a planning team I’m working with what they think they know about the problem they are addressing in their communities, its root causes and about the lives and experiences of their beneficiaries. I also ask what they think they know about their programs and services—e.g., the extent of community need and demand for them and about the published literature on the effectiveness of their specific strategies. We also spend time fleshing out the group’s beliefs about the step-by-step process involved in turning their program outputs into long-term benefits.

Sometimes, it takes a few minutes to get going, but pretty soon, ideas are flying out of people’s heads onto paper and the sticky wall! After a few minutes, we step back to examine the long set of assumptions—beliefs, values, evidence and so forth. I ask the group to decide which ones they support and which ones they do not support. We then discuss the ones that are NOT widely supported.

I tread lightly here because this exercise deals with not only with individuals’ ideas, values and beliefs, but also the group’s organizational culture. If the group has widespread agreement on the values and knowledge base that guide its work (as in the example above), an assumptions exercise likely will feel reassuring and empowering. If, however, a group’s organizational culture is in flux, an assumptions exercise may make plain previously hidden forces resisting change. In this case, it’s possible that not everyone will experience the exercise as unifying. But it is likely that greater appreciation of underlying differences will result, making it easier to manage the change process and prevent it from going off the rails.