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Challenging Assumptions: Are You Aware of All That Exist?


We can’t challenge something if we aren’t aware that it exists.  Even if we are aware that something does exist it may not be easy to challenge it, but it’s pretty much impossible to challenge something we are not aware of.

There are several types of assumptions we make in business and in life. For the sake of simplicity I’ve categorized them as follows:

1) Metrics and Results Assumptions: These are pretty standard. Sales forecasts, the costs of developing a product or an offering, scoping an engagement to determine the resources we’ll need to execute the work, fixed costs, variable costs, labor costs, response rates, page views, conversion rates, etc.

While there are many of these types of metrics and they vary greatly depending on the situation, they are all tangible. The challenge is to make assumptions of these types that are grounded in logic and experience. Revising them can be as easy as tweaking a few numbers in a spreadsheet and the data is usually accessible.

2) People Assumptions: While these types of assumptions are not as clear as those listed above we all make assumptions (hopefully based on experience and not bias) about the people we work with (your boss, your direct reports, vendors, partners or colleagues) that have a direct effect on the task at hand. We know that Bill from Finance always asks for more data, that Shannon the programmer is fast and creative but not detail oriented, that John the head of sales is always overly optimistic, that Diane from marketing often gets enamored with new technology.

Given that we typically are not working exclusively with machines that are entirely predictable it makes sense to take into account people’s skills, strengths and blind spots when making assumptions. While it requires more right brain thinking than calculating a gross margin, most of us can and do make these assumptions frequently and accurately.

3) Beliefs and World Views: Every individual has a set of beliefs and world views and they are all a result of their unique experiences, culture, values and such. They are all vastly different and we as individuals are not even aware that we hold many of these beliefs.

For example, someone that is a micromanager probably believes (even though he may never articulate the belief) that others cannot be trusted to complete a task without their involvement. A sales person may hold a belief that viable opportunities are scarce and won’t let go of a lead that clearly is not going to become a buyer. Another sales person may believe that opportunities are abundant and actually looks to walk away from a “cold lead” quickly so that he can find the next opportunity.

If we consider these beliefs to be nothing more than assumptions on how the world works then we can see how these assumptions (that exist beneath the surface) can radically impact everything we do and ultimately how  a team or an organization performs.

We make assumptions at a given point in time and we don’t revisit them often enough to validate them as we move further away from the time we made the assumptions. What I also believe is that we need to bring to the surface assumptions that are hidden, that we may not be aware of and force ourselves to question them. While in some instances this may require years of therapy I think in most instances being honest and asking ourselves questions about how we think other people behave (can we trust others?) or why we are fearful of making our numbers (do we believe in scarcity or abundance?) and many more questions can force us to realize we are actually making assumptions unconsciously and examine them on a conscientious level to either change our beliefs or validate them.

What assumptions have you discovered you make? Do they serve a purpose or do they prevent you from achieving your objectives? Have you changed an assumption that you didn’t know you had?


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

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