MSD competency A6

Critical thinking, foresight & vision

Actively make and challenge assumptions

MSD competencies

Competency definition

Practitioners can articulate the assumptions made by themselves and their colleagues. They actively seek evidence that challenges their existing assumptions. They can explain how system boundaries (e.g. sector, geography, target population) can be changed depending on different operational goals.

Knowledge areas

Practitioners with this competency will be knowledgeable about concepts and ideas described and explored in these resources...

Skills and experience

Practitioners with this competency will have acquired qualifications, skills and practical experience that may include:

  • experience of hypothesis-driven work planning methodologies e.g. lean or agile software development
  • developing and updating theories of change with a strong emphasis on the critical assumptions and how they change

Guidance for teaching this competency

Content delivery
Lead a workshop on assumptions, systems and mental models to equip practitioners with core terminology and concepts. Use exercises (see Confirmation Bias Game) to help practitioners recognise their own assumptions and become comfortable challenging them.

Case studies
Provide several different small groups of practitioners with the same case study. They should each make their own starting assumptions about the ‘scope’ of system boundaries before jumping into the analysis. When debriefing findings draw out the link between assumptions, system boundaries and findings. Use this to emphasise the importance of building links across sector teams and challenging each other’s assumptions.

Coaching and mentoring advice

  • Continuously ask practitioners to state their assumptions, write them down and find ways to test them
  • Develop a culture in team meetings whereby questioning each other’s assumptions is rewarded. This requires support to those being questioned - to not get defensive. Managers can role model this by asking staff to challenge their own assumptions

Guidance for assessing this competency

Traditional questions
Present interviewee with a simple scenario of a key geography or market sector (e.g. vegetable farming in a remote mountainous village) where the programme is considering intervening. Ask them to walk through the assumptions they would make if they were to analyse or intervene in that system with two very different operational goals - for example improve the income of local villagers regardless of sector vs improve the efficiency of the transportation sector for people and goods. Pay attention to how they reframe the system boundaries based on the goal in each case.

Presentation of case analysis
At the end of a presentation ask practitioners to go back through their key points to emphasise the main assumptions they made. Ask them to articulate which they think is the most likely to be wrong, how they would test it and what they would do differently if it turned out to be incorrect.

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