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Identifying Risky Assumptions

Assumptions that are not likely to prove valid over a CDCS period threaten program success. The early identification of risky assumptions and an explanation of how the country team will monitor control critical risks is an expected element of a CDCS.

While not specifically required for a CDCS, an expanded table of assumptions that includes an assessment of the likelihood of those assumptions proving valid is a useful document for Mission managers, if only as a guide for deciding which assumptions to include under its monitoring plan. (The monitoring of CDCS assumptions is addressed in the kit section on Performance Management Plans — PMPs.)

There are a variety of ways to express the likelihood that an assumption is valid. One common approach is to simply grade assumptions on a High/Medium/Low system, without reference to a standard for what those terms mean. Another is to assign each assumption a percentage equivalent to the Mission’s perceived probability that it will be valid. A third approach, which is somewhat more objectively defined, is one used by Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) that asks two questions about every assumption and scores them using a scale developed for each question. The questions are:

  • How likely is it that the assumption will prove valid?
  • How devastating would the consequences of its not being valid?

CIDA’s rating scale for ranking assumptions on each of these questions is shown below. A score of 4/4 indicates that while potentially devastating it is highly likely that a particular assumption will prove valid – and is thus not a “high risk” assumption. At the other end of this scale, an assumption with a rating of 1/4, shows the assumption in question to be both potentially devastating and not at all likely to prove valid. An assumption with these ratings would be classified as being very risky, or what USAID staff sometimes call a “killer assumption.”

Criteria Very Low (1) Very Low (1) Very Low (1) Very High (2)
Likelihood of assumption being valid or correct Very unlikely Unlikely Likely Very likely
Potential impact on achievement of the CDCS results Routine procedures sufficient to deal with consequence Could threaten goals and objectives, and thus may require monitoring Would threaten goals and objectives, and thus may require review Would prevent achievement of goals and objectives

For Missions that wish to apply this approach, a CDCS Assumptions — Risk Analysis and Mitigation template is included in this section of the kit. It can be completed using the CIDA rating system or simpler High/Medium/Low ratings. Space is provided for identifying Mission plans for dealing with high risk assumptions it identifies.