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11 Dec 2014

Challenging Assumptions Example

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This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Challenging Assumptions

Challenging Assumptions Example

Assumptions can isolate us from our world unless we challenge them.

Challenging assumptions is a key approach to communicating, problem solving, innovating and creating. Too many times though people tell us to do this without really showing us how. If they do, they give simplified examples anyone can see. I focus on invisible assumptions. They guide our thinking without our knowledge.

To explain this, I will present a typical definition of an assumption. I’ll then give an obvious example. Afterwards, I’ll dive into invisible assumptions and give an example.

A typical, academic definition of an assumption is similar to this:

A statement for which no proof or evidence is offered

For instance, “That product won’t sell,” is an assumption by this definition. We are saying it won’t sell. We don’t offer any proof or evidence. “That product won’t sell because it’s very similar to the one we tried last year. It didn’t sell.” Here, we offer evidence.

The second statement in the link to the above statement is better:

An idea one believes to be true based on prior experience or one’s belief systems

For example, “Based on my experience that product won’t sell,” offers our experience as proof. Saying, “Based on my expertise in taking products to market,” offers our belief in the form of expertise as proof.

The problem remains though. What about unsaid statements and unconscious ideas? Three of us were preparing a block party. Two of us asked the third, “Could you go and get some ice?” Even though he was with us amongst five large coolers, he returned with only one bag of ice. It was barely enough for one cooler. We were stunned. What unsaid statements or unconscious ideas did we assume?

  • He saw that we had five large coolers.
  • He understood how much ice to get.

We neither asked nor thought of asking questions to clear these assumptions. Miscommunication occurred. Our ice problem remained.

Identifying assumptions trains our minds. Hidden ones exist in our everyday discussions. They create business problems. A challenging assumptions example helps us practice. Practice helps us train our minds to see assumptions. We can’t challenge what we can’t identify though.


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4 Responses

  1. I like the notion of “silent assumptions,” Mike. Any problem solving procedure, to be effective, must include specific understanding of the constraints imposed AND the assumptions made – including most especially those silent ones!!! Why? It’s not ever going to be the case that NO assumptions will be required, at least for realistic, significant situations. In the real world, one never has the luxury of having the time and resources to eliminate all assumptions; indeed, in some instances, there are never enough time and resources to do so!!! With those assumptions identified and used, outcomes will result. If those outcomes turn out NOT to be useful, the assumptions must be reevaluated with revised assumptions yielding different outcomes. This effort must continue until outcomes are useful in addressing the situation. In my career, I can only recall one time I was “sort of” allowed to say I could not fine a solution… Typically that’s not an option – for ANYONE; useful answers are required and thus dealing with assumptions is an absolute necessity!

    1. Mike Lehr

      Yes, John, you’re right. We need assumptions to function. It’s not practical to eliminate assumptions. It is practical though to be aware of them. Just because I run into a tree doesn’t mean I should rid the world of trees. It only means I should be more aware of where I am going. Assumptions are useful. Assumptions are obstacles too.

  2. Thanks for you post Mike. John also made some good points about assumptions in his comment.

    I would add that a lot of disagreements stem from the different assumptions people are making. By calling out our own assumptions when making an argument, it allows people to challenge the assumptions, rather than our logic. This is a lot less threatening and hence less likely to prompt a defensive reaction and more likely to result in a good dialogue.


    David Pethick
    Co-Founder, http://leading.io

    1. Mike Lehr

      Yes, David, that’s very true. I only question whether most business cultures permit the questioning of assumptions. They might interpret it as questioning merit of the idea. A colleague, after reading this post, questioned how questioning a boss’s assumptions would really be perceived.

      As I thought about this, an irony hit me. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to challenging assumptions is the assumption that doing so is challenging the logic and merit of the idea or the person. Your comment, in an inverse way, reinforced this. For instance, an employee was asking a lot of questions about a new service. He was not only asking about its merits but its drawbacks. The executive in charge of the new service later called the employee’s boss to wonder whether he was on board. Fortunately, the employee’s boss explained that her experience had been that this is just how the employee bought into a service and sold it better. He likes to know benefits AND disadvantages.

      So, is it really safe to assume that challenging assumptions will not be perceived as challenging the logic and merit?

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