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AIM – Hypothesis
Mark Pratt

Our Introduction to Project and Change Management article discussed why the “why” is essential to your project.

We introduced you to the God of Why, Simon Sinek, and his incredible Golden Circle Ted talk video.

If you’ve not already checked this bad-boy out, we’ve included it here again – we’d highly recommend watching before going any further.

It’s a beautiful and well-articulated theory that we here at Project Partners wholeheartedly endorse.

But one of our core values is to Keep The Complex Simple – so while Sinek’s fabulous presentation made sense to us, and I’m sure made sense to you, we felt that turning this into a practical step-by-step method was vital to our ABCDE Way.

Buckle up, everyone.

There’s a lot to go through in the next 15 minutes, but mastering the “Why” of a Project using hypotheses will almost certainly save you time and money down the line.

We’re going to introduce you to the Hypothesis stage of the ABCDE Way – and by the end of this article, we hope you’ll:-

  • Be able to articulate the “why” for your projects fully
  • Know how the hypothesis framework works
  • Understand how to extract a well-formed mandate from your sponsor
  • Nail-down time and cost expectations and budgets up-front

We always need to start with why. We’re lingering on this point because it’s critical and the bedrock of any successful project. So how do we put this into practice then?

Let’s get started.

The Hypothesis Framework

Using our Hypothesis Framework, you’ll learn how to supercharge your ideas, improve your decision making and, most importantly, set your project up for success.

In this section, I’m going to show you how to turn your sponsors‘ ideas into fully formed mandates using hypotheses.

By the way, “Hypothesis,” with four syllables, is the most complex word we use in the ABCDE Way. As you’ll discover, we love to Keep The Complex Simple – we thought about using the word “Why,” “Idea,” or even “Mandate,” but as you’ll come to see, “Hypothesis” is far more appropriate.

So, without further ado, let me get going and introduce you to the five steps you’ll need to go through to get to a decent hypothesis.

  • First of all, you start with your idea.
  • Then, you create a hypothesis from this idea.
  • Next, you then make that hypothesis better.
  • You then use some prioritization and persuasion techniques,
  • Finally, you’ll arrive at your mandate.

Let’s dive into each of these in turn.

What is an idea?

We all know what an idea is. It’s a suggestion or a plan for doing something. So keeping it simple as we always do, let’s start with a straightforward concept. Throughout this hypothesis framework we’re going to use the example of buying a beautiful family home-based in the English countryside.

Dream HomeDream Home

A lovely house, I’m sure you’ll agree.

However, there is nothing inherent in that particular idea, or in fact, any idea to answer:-

  • Is it a good or bad idea?
  • Could this be a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist?
  • Is it the wrong solution to a problem that does exist?

So, how do we know? What is an idea?

An idea is a belief or a concept, a hunch or an intention, a notion, an opinion, somebody’s perception, or a suggestion. It’s nothing more at this point.

Therefore, the problem with ideas is that we can be overconfident or underconfident in them.

Sometimes decisions get made too quickly, using emotion, politics, relationships, unconscious bias, and usually not evidence.

I will introduce you to someone now; you may already know this person. It’s the HIPPO, one of our key project stakeholders.

HippopotamusThe Hippo

HIPPO’s are dangerous and can be pretty dumb.

And it’s the HIPPO’s who are usually making all the wrong decisions on your projects.

The HIPPO is the HIghest-Paid Person’s Opinion, and if we’re honest, this is how most projects get prioritised.

(and while, of course, the HIPPO didn’t become the HIPPO by accident – they must know some stuff to get where they’ve got, they can’t get it right all the time; they can only make decisions based on the information and experiences they’ve had).

So how do we help out our HIPPO’s and empower the whole team to tell if an idea is good or bad so we can make good decisions around it?

Well, we do this by building a hypothesis.

The Hypothesis

I’m sure you’ve heard the word before, but you might struggle to give me the dictionary definition.

Or in plain English, “an idea with extra information to get us started.”

Hypothesis-driven design helps teams take calculated risks to move a project forward and explore different solutions.

To break this down into simple steps:-

  • First, we develop the idea and write it down as simply as possible
  • Next, we clearly state what you think the idea will achieve
  • And who it will achieve it for
  • Then you clearly state how you’ll measure whether or not your idea has been successful.

That’s the theory: now for the practice.

Consider this simple paragraph structure.

  • We believe {your idea}
  • For {people}
  • Will result in {outcome}
  • We’ll know this is true if {evidence}

Let’s dwell on this for a few minutes.

We believe {your idea}

The first part of our sentence captures the idea you are proposing. We need to try and articulate that as directionally and as non-ambiguously as possible. It needs to pass The Nan Test.

It may be a fully formed idea, or it may be the starting point of your thinking.

You’re unlikely to get this right the first time. Be brave. Remove the filter in your head. Just capture the raw words, as you’d speak them. To your Nan. Or to a mate down the pub. Only when you’ve got the basic stuff out should you twiddle and tweak and go round and round and round until you get to something unambiguous.

For {people}

Next of all, it’s the people bit. Here we state which person or group of people this idea targets. Easy, right?

The crucial part of this is if you don’t understand your different user types or the different people you’re going to be targeting this idea with, you need to stop everything and figure that out first.

If you don’t understand who the change will land with, you should take this opportunity to pause and think.

You need to consider all of their requirements: how this idea would impact them, positively or negatively. There will likely be multiple stakeholders who will all feel differently about your idea.

Will result in {outcome}

The third part is the outcome part. We state what the world will look like after our idea comes to life. It should communicate a clear value or benefit to the people defined in the previous sentence. Even better, it should tie into the strategic goals of the stakeholders or the business.

We’ll know this is true if {evidence}

Finally, a hypothesis would not be a hypothesis without some evidence! What “before and after” metrics can we measure to demonstrate success?

We should use quantitative (e.g., objective things you can count) wherever possible. Of course, this is not always possible – not everything is measurable with a defined data point or a metric.

Where we can’t use a quantitative measure, we should use qualitative measures (e.g., subjective feelings or opinions) – how do our stakeholders feel today (write it down!) How did they feel after our idea came to life? How do we hope their feelings will change?

Let’s get back to my example idea again, buying a family home-based in the country, and turn it into a hypothesis.

  • We believe that buying a large family home-based in the country
  • For our son and us
  • Will result in us all being happier with a better lifestyle.
  • We’ll know this is true if we smile more and argue less!

A perfectly reasonable hypothesis, I’m sure you’ll agree.

However, EPIC FAIL.

Why is it an epic fail? Because we’ve got no evidence to support this, and that is what the people want!

We need to improve and build our evidence base into the hypothesis, then use this evidence to persuade our stakeholders. Let’s roll out the “better hypothesis.”

Better Hypotheses

Q: How can we adjust our hypothesis to make it better?

A: By expanding our idea or explanation to include something based on known facts.

It’s unlikely that your stakeholders will make decisions based on evidence that they haven’t seen or don’t understand. You’ll see or hear this manifest when they talk about “feelings” or “confidence” (“I just don’t feel this idea will work,” “I’m not confident that this idea will work”).

Let’s inject a clear evidence base to our hypothesis by adding a specific word to the beginning – “Because.”

  • Because {things we know or believe}
  • We believe {your idea}
  • For {people}
  • Will result in {outcome}.
  • We’ll know this is true if {evidence}

Simples, right?

Hold your horses, my friend. It’s not always that simple.

We need to be specific. We need to aim for a range of evidence. And while we would always want to try and use as robust evidence as possible, don’t discount hunches, don’t discount your gut.

There will always be things that you know, and there will be other things that you aren’t so sure about. Again, remove that inbuilt filter. Write them all down, give them all airtime. Play them out.

Let’s go back to our example idea and see how that evidence plays out.

Who are our stakeholders for this idea?

  1. Our first stakeholder is a 39-year-old female. She’s generally clear about what she does and doesn’t want in a dream home. She likes the country. She enjoys walking the dog and sitting in the garden on sunny days. Paradoxically, she hates mud; she’s obsessed with cleaning. She’s previously lived in a large house in the country, and her family still lives there. She said, “This looks lovely” when looking at country house examples.
  2. A 43-year-old male. He’s not able to communicate clearly what his dream home is. He loves the country, but he hates commuting. He cried last time he had to make a big house purchase decision. Seriously! When looking at dream houses yesterday, he said, “I’d love to look at this one. We should go and see it.” And then today, he said, “ew” when looking at the same image
  3. Their eight-year-old son. He’s unpredictable. Sometimes he likes playing in the garden; sometimes, he prefers Lego. He doesn’t want anything too old – he thinks it has ghosts. He loves the country, although he says his favourite place in the whole world is London.

Based on that evidence, are we clear that our hypothesis will work?

It wouldn’t be a wise idea to take a leap of faith based on the mixed evidence. It might work, it might not. But we wouldn’t want to implement a project based on haphazard and conflicting proof.

We must dive down a little bit further. What evidence drove the idea, and how confident are you in it?

Now is the time to get into prioritisation and persuasion. When we look at the example that I’ve just run you through, as trivial as it might be, it may or may not have been the right thing to do. And all the projects that we work with are very much like that.

Let’s look at how we might build confidence that this is the right thing to do right now. People band about terms like “prioritisation” and “persuasion” far too often; we need to bring them to life. To do this, we must establish effort, value and confidence.

Consider the following straightforward diagram and represent our evidence points by plotting them across two axes: values across the horizontal axis and confidence up the vertical.

Value vs Confidence GraphValue/Confidence Graph

We can quickly work out the value. We know what the hypothesis will bring to the table and its importance to us. It can be measured financially, emotionally, or using other factors.

How do we get to the confidence? We get the evidence for our confidence measure by looking at different data points.

In the business world (I’m assuming most of your projects are in this context), we’d consider these sorts of things (from high confidence to low confidence):

  • Hard data. Business data like KPI’s, perhaps some financial data, maybe some website data, depending upon the sort of project that this is
  • Observed behaviour. Be careful here. What people say they want and what they genuinely want can often differ. Sometimes, when you take surveys or ask people what they want, how they behave can be slightly different. You’ve got to be mindful of that.
  • Other people. Like competitors, or those in different types of business doing something similar. We might look at what our competitors are doing (but be careful – you don’t know where they are on their journey or if they’ve been as considered and thoughtful as we are trying to be)
  • Past projects
  • Best practice
  • Assumptions and hunches. These are still valuable evidence points but, of course, lower down the confidence scale.

Having gathered our evidence points, we can now decide how much robust evidence, aka confidence, we have, and plot our hypothesis on our simple chart.

In terms of the scale of the axes – you’re going to have to work this bit out for yourself – you may be looking at projects with a value ranging from the hundreds to the millions financially, or that will impact one or ten thousand people. You may be working in a start-up that can’t mess about gathering reams and reams of evidence – speed is of the essence. You may be in a highly regulated or governed environment where you need to dot every “i” and cross every “t.” If you figure out what “high” and “low” are for you, then split this scale into 5-10 chunks, e.g., 1-5 or 1-10, which should be sufficient for this exercise.

Once you’ve decided where your hypothesis sits on your value/confidence chart, we’re in business – we can assess what to do next.

  • Bottom left: low confidence, low value. Your idea, if implemented, would yield little relative value, and you’re not confident it would work anyway. Stop. Go no further. Stick it in the bin. Waste of time. (or better, file it in the “rubbish ideas” folder, and review this next time someone thinks of something similar)
  • Top right: high confidence, high value. You’ve collated sufficient evidence to give you a high level of confidence that your idea will work and be valuable. Amazing. Good stuff. Go for it – it’s a no-brainer.
  • Top left: high confidence, low value. You’re pretty sure this thing will work, but the value it will create is limited. Have another look – what could you do to increase the value and move it towards the top right?
  • Bottom right: low confidence, high value. You’ve got limited evidence that your idea can succeed, but if it does, you’ll be delighted in the value created. What can you do to gather more evidence? Review the list above, collate more evidence and see where that takes you. Can you move it towards the top right, or is the evidence simply not there?

You may be thinking, “that’s just common sense.” But the thing about common sense is it’s not that common.

OK – so now we have a well-formed Hypothesis. We know:

  • What our idea is
  • Who it will impact
  • How it will affect them
  • How we’ll measure it
  • And how confident we are in it!

“Are we there yet?” I hear you cry?


When was the last time you signed up for something without having a rough idea of how much it would cost and how long it would take?

It’s unlikely you ever did – and neither will your Sponsor

The Mandate

Finally, then coming onto the mandate. The holy grail of Project Management.

A mandate adds time and cost to your hypothesis so that you can have it approved by your Sponsor.

We’re going to revisit our old friends’ the balls of change at this stage.

Nan talk

‘Nan’ talk…By the way, we deliberately use these little tongue-in-cheek terms to give you good mental anchor points. The world of Project Management can be a little dull and use theoretical, corporate change-speak. We’re trying to change that and use these humorous mental anchors to let you remember those sorts of things when you’re going through them. We also encourage you to speak plainly and simply and in words anyone (including your Nan) will understand.

As you’ll hopefully remember, there are three different dynamics in our balls of change.

  • Good. Another way to describe “good” is “quality.” We get to “good” by implementing our hypothesis well
  • Fast. The speed at which you execute your project
  • Cost. Money is always something to consider

The critical thing about juggling the balls of change is that it’s impossible to adjust one thing without impacting at least one of the others. You can have it:

  • Better, but it will take longer, cost more, or both
  • Faster, but it will be less good, cost more, or both
  • Cheaper, but it will be less good, take longer, or both.

Only when you get clear on all three things can you arrive at an approvable mandate. And that clarity must include what is “fixed” – a “must” and what is “variable” – a “should”.

Suppose our project must happen within a specific budget. Maybe that’s all the cash we have access to, or it only makes sense to invest based on an acceptable return on investment. You have fixed the “cost” ball of change in this scenario. Alternatively, suppose it only “should” be delivered within a particular budget (because most people have at least got an aspiration to try and do a thing for a price). In that case, your “cost” ball of change can be variable.

Similarly, for time, if your project must happen within a specific timeframe, e.g., for seasonal regions, say it’s a Christmas promotion or something like that, or it’s a legal reason or a regulatory mandate. Then your time is fixed. If there is no fixed date, and it “should” happen within a specific timeframe, then your time becomes the variable. Watch out here for the aspirational or “push” date – a vanity date that someone – usually our HIPPO – pulls out of thin air in a misguided attempt to keep costs down or look good!

At this stage, perhaps your sponsor is telling you that it MUST be delivered within a specific budget and MUST happen by a certain date.

In this instance, it is the “good” ball of change – otherwise known as the project requirements, e.g. your hypothesis that is the variable thing. So if you find yourself in a place where it becomes clear that time and costs cannot change, you need to have an open and honest conversation about this. Dig deeper. Understand where the room for negotiation is. Some stakeholders may challenge you and use phrases like “just get it done”. Arm yourself with this knowledge – share this article with them. Because if they genuinely are fixed, then your “why” is either no longer possible or likely to fail.

It’s so important to get this right early on; you’ll never regret spending the time to get this right.

But experience tells me you’ll certainly regret it if you don’t.

So you’ve just got to keep iterating and make sure it all adds up into a sensible statement.

You can’t have your cake and eat it.

It’s not possible.

Many people have tried and failed to have it all, but if you fix two things, the third one does become variable.

That is undeniable logic.

Putting it all together

To round out our example:

  • Because we rented a large house in the country for six months and thoroughly enjoyed it
  • We believe that buying a large family home-based in the country
  • For our son and us
  • Will result in us all being happier with a better lifestyle.
  • We’ll know this is true if we smile more and argue less!
  • We must spend less than £800,000, and
  • We should be in by Christmas

Wouldn’t we all like that house for £800,000!

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