Assumption Mapping – Always Be Aware of What Assumptions You Make & Notice When They Are Wrong

One of the things that most entrepreneurs take for granted is the set of assumptions that they are making when they make important decisions. If you build a startup company on wrong assumptions, you will get in trouble in the future. If you cannot identify, test and refine your assumptions over time to fuel your decision-making, you will likely get caught off-guard down the road.

Dead End Road Sign

It is too easy to be unaware of the underlying assumptions you are making in any situation. This is a delicate topic because it can be challenging to identify the assumptions you are basing your views, as if the assumptions are always true at all times for everyone. Assumptions are rolled up in your thinking and may seem invisible if you don’t look for them and think deeply about them.

Let’s look at a few examples:

A startup company is founded to create a social networking platform because of the popularity of Facebook, Twitter and other sites.  

  • What is the assumption? 
    • The assumption is that, if the company builds it, lots of people will use the new social networking platform because of the popularity of social networks.  
  • This assumption may be “right” in general, but actually wrong when it comes to “new” social networks because of multiple factors: most people just want to stay on their existing social sites and are reluctant to join new ones; and awareness may cost millions of dollars to get enough people to simply be aware of it, not to mention change their behavior and join it.
  • A new social platform must deliver new value that existing sites don’t.  

A startup company is founded to increase financial transparency 

  • What is the assumption?  
    • Many people want to be more transparent about the finances of their organization
  • This assumption may be wrong because most people may actually be uncomfortable being transparent about private financial information. There are also privacy issues and government regulations that may limit how “transparent” an organization can be.
  • The startup would have to invest in changing the perception of financial transparency and create a “need” before selling a product that few people currently want.  

A startup company is founded to add digital verification to auctions

  • What is the assumption?  
    • The first assumption is that there is a problem with verifying the authenticity of items at auctions. The second assumption is that the people who are involved care enough to solve the issue.
  • This assumption may be right that there is no independent verification of auction items, but it could be wrong that enough people care about the issue at this time.  
  • It may be premature to develop a solution to a problem that very few people care about. There would be no money in it, even though many people may tell you that they “like” the idea.

Now that you have the notion that you need to identify and evaluate the assumptions you make in any business decision about your startup company, we will venture into a simple tool you can use for what is called “assumption mapping.”

Mapping means to organize the information, as if you were charting a course on a map between different geographies. By mapping assumptions, you are identifying assumptions being made about a new product or new service.

The exercise of assumption mapping involves using sticky notes for each assumption and then plotting them in the following framework. The most important quadrant is the top-right quadrant (Important and Unknown), which requires you to get more information afterward.

                                                                                                              (Source of image: Precoil)

You can also organize your assumptions around a single decision point, using the simple framework below:

    Decision PointAssumptions



Decision PointAssumptions
Decision to enter the online fraud detection market with a digital tool based on 2018 technology that cannot evolve over timeTechnology will not dramatically change over the next 5 years
Fraud detection market is not saturated and has room for more companies as players
Existing solutions from competitors are missing critical pieces that customers desire


You should assess whether these assumptions could be wrong. Seek out more information to either validate or poke holes in these assumptions. In the sample above, you could search for market analyst reports and trade media articles (i.e. cybersecurity media outlets) that would have information about technology trends, market saturation and what competitors are doing or failing to deliver.

By questioning assumption, you do yourself a favor. It causes you to frame up the opportunity and the challenge differently. You think about the decision in light of the possibility that the opposite assumption is true, rather than the assumption you’re making. And when you see the different assumption, you can then game-plan better to not only improve the assumptions, but also make better decisions – notably, future-altering decision – about your startup.  

Road Covered With Sand