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Constantly Challenge Your Assumptions!


When we attempt to solve a problem, build a business or get a team to perform we begin with certain assumptions.  There are basically two types of assumptions that we start with.  There are assumptions that we choose to make based on our understanding of a market or a situation and there are assumptions that we make that we are unaware of.  We need to constantly test the assumptions we choose to make and we need to make ourselves more aware of the assumptions we are not aware that we are making.

Assumptions are a necessary starting point but they are not static and need to be revisited, tested, questioned, discarded, modified and validated.  Let start with the easier group, the set of assumptions that we conscientiously make.  Let’s assume you have a new product or offering.  You’ll need to know something about the size of the market, about the potential buyers, competitors in the space, alternatives to your offering, etc.  In order to be able to manage the variables you will make some assumptions.  The problem is a week later, a month later or after you’ve been exposed to new information or experiences we rarely go back and modify our initial assumptions.  The results? Flawed projections about expected results, flawed estimates of  the resources needed to go to market; unrealistic timelines, the list is endless. You can’t build a logical strategy on faulty assumptions.  I’d suggest every time you learn something new relative to your project you force yourself and your team to ask, “based on this new information are there changes that we need to make to our original assumptions”? Chances are the answer will be a resounding yes and those changes will be apparent.

But what about assumptions we make subconsciously?   This is much more difficult.  After all how can we possibly know what they are?   We can bring them to light by questioning them.  For example when you delegate something to someone do you assume they are competent and capable of executing the task or do you assume that you’ll need to closely check what they do and remind them when it’s due?  The answer to that question will certainly reveal some assumptions you make about people and it impacts your management style and the way you collaborate with others.  What I would advocate is to look at certain behaviors you have which manifest themselves in the way you organize projects and delegate to others.  What assumptions have been made and are they in fact valid.

The assumptions that we can easily see can be modified and adjusted as reality or experience show us that they are no longer valid or helpful.  You need to make this a part of the process.

The assumptions that we can’t easily see require us to be much more thoughtful and to question not only their helpfulness but where they came from so that we are aware of them.  If you can make yourself and your team more aware of the fact that they are making assumptions every day that impact their ability to operate effectively and that  they don’t realize they are even making those assumptions  it can have a profound impact on creativity and productivity.

Agree?  Disagree?  Please share your thoughts and reactions.

Peter Winick has deep expertise in helping those with deep expertise. He is the CEO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Peter on Twitter!

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Great blog!
    You should do a white paper on “The New 360.” Every month check your beliefs and challenge your assumptions of your market, customers, clients, shareholders, people, goals, strategies to get there. If you view it as a way to keep you and your company and your career vital, it will. It will also prevent you from spending time, money and other resources and doing what Stephen Covey says too many people do, i.e. spend years climbing a ladder to success only to discover it is on the wrong wall.

  2. The unconscious assumptions are with us all the time. Actually in decision making process, I have this as step 3 with my clients – check your assumptions. And one that most people just skirt right over. Many beliefs are even more unconscious than assumptions because they are far more integrated with other experiences and are reinforced over years and years of conditioning. Good post, thanks

  3. I *really like this post. It provokes yet doesn’t preach. Think of the expansive application of this simple reminder “Challenge Your Assumptions”. I will RT this on Twitter.

    One of the most basic sub-conscious assumptions is that people you interact with (customers, team members, leaders, suppliers etc…) think like you, want the same things as you, and want to be treated like you. Boy, can this derail success.

    Here’s a post that will help you constantly challenge that assumption with knowledge and capability:

    Best wishes and many thanks for your post,
    Kate Nasser

  4. Challenging an assumption–or an opinion–is hard work. That explains why it is rarely done. We prefer the comfort of assumption over the challenge of critical thinking. Those most dedicated to learning are willing to continually think and re-think. Some of the things I was sure I “knew” 20 years ago are no longer on my list of beliefs.

  5. ‘The assumptions that we can easily see can be modified and adjusted as reality or experience show us that they are no longer valid or helpful. You need to make this a part of the process.’

    The assumption of considering the process as a lineal cause-effect one, could be also dangerous… In a multidimentional world, our answers should assume complexity 🙂

    Like this post… very much!… Thanks for sharing it!

  6. Peter, I very much agree with your thoughts with one addition. Where do our internal assumptions originate? Often, they originate from past experiences and relationships. Something happens; we make up a story about it. Consider our assumptions (or interpretations) are mostly comprised of our past. One question I encourage any leader to ask of his/her team is “Where is the one place you’ll stop (in this project, sales goal, etc)?” The answer to this question typically uncovers the story they have of themselves. Once the story is identified, it becomes much easier to let it go – i.e. move beyond the assumption to effective action NOT based on the past.

    Keep up the great work,
    -Preston True
    Accomplishment Coaching

  7. I completely agree that it’s critical to challenge one’s assumptions to assure that they are in alignment with the reality of the situation. It’s a lot of work to constantly challenge assumptions, but it’s sometimes necessary to do so to achieve greater insight into a changing situation.

    After one has done the heavy lifting of challenging assumptions, there is often a temptation to latch onto the first new idea that comes to mind. But what we really need to do at this point is to deliberately put effort into imaging and considering a wide spectrum of possibilities that incorporate this new understanding of the situation. This is where true visionary creativity is spawned.

    Read more about imagining the possibilities at

  8. The great hazard of assumptions is their ability to limit a person’s progress. Sometimes called limiting beliefs, no significant success is experienced by people who don’t choose to overcome them.

    If the two main pillars of high self-esteem are the ability to meet life’s challenges and be worthy of love as suggested by Jack Canfield in his book “The Success Principles” then we need to challenge any assumption that has a personal limit attached.

    Strangely enough we can help prevent assumptions even starting by reading bedtime stories to our children or grandchildren. Since the last thing we experience before sleeping is repeated up to nine times.

    As adults we can also control the last things to enter our heads and we need to defeat negative self-talk actively through the use of turnaround statements.

    The idea of challenging assumptions is also highlighted in Claude Bristol’s book “the Magic of Believing” where he says’ “This subtle force of repeated suggestion overcomes our reason. It acts directly on our emotions and our feelings, and finally penetrates to the very depths of our subconscious minds. It’s the repeated suggestion that makes you believe.”

    I believe you’ve hit the target.

  9. Great comments from everyone who has stopped by! I’m also a believer in challenging assumptions, often. Two ongoing influences help me stay true to this discipline: 1) My dad left me a copy of Claude Bristol’s book, “The Magic of Believing” that Doc mentioned above. Amazingly, written well over 50 years ago, it continues to be a bestselling book with powerful lessons. 2) Over the years, I’ve taken on one of RUMI’s messages as a guiding principle: “Attention to SMALL DETAILS makes perfert a large work.” This principle keeps thinking and questioning forever present. Thank you for putting the spotlight on “challenging assumptions” as a reminder of its significance. Debbe

  10. Great post. I have had to change my management style as a result of poor assumptions. I would assume that a well detailed email would not get lost in translation, boy did I find out that isn’t always the case. Now, after sending detailed emails on very important projects, I follow up with either a quick team huddle or a few checkpoint calls. I’d rather overcommunicate than assume peole are getting what I am trying to convey.

  11. What a great way to check and make sure that you’re listening to the people around you!

    You got me to double-check an e-mail I just sent 🙂 Will definitely be keeping this in mind in the future!

  12. Peter, Maybe the title should be “Constantly Challenge Your Beliefs!” After all our assumptions are nothing more than beliefs manifested. When we change our beliefs we automatically change our internal assumptions.

    External assumptions are the results of skills, market research and asking the right questions. Internal assumptions are typically not known and more impact on the decision than external assumptions (such as market research.) To me these are two very different issues.

    To change our internal assumptions we must change how we think. This can be a very easy process is we do not bite off more than we can chew.

  13. omg this piece is amazing! the best I read about assumptions so far– I could even manage to apply it to my love life it works!!! thanks so much!!!

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