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Check Your Assumptions

January 5, 2017


Mark Twain said this, ‘What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know; it is what we think we know for sure.’ The things we do not know we ask questions about. We are open-minded. The things we are sure about are dangerous because our minds are closed on the topic. Most dangerous are the assumptions that govern our every day at work.

The atom was originally defined as the smallest indivisible unit of matter. The implication was that an atom could never be subdivided. This assumption made it difficult for scientists to conceive of splitting the atom.

Senior managers are like generals fighting new campaigns using the techniques they learnt in earlier ones. One of the reasons the American forces had difficulties in Vietnam was that the generals fought as though it was Korea (where many had learnt their trade). But each war is different – in technology, in terrain and in technique. And each business problem is different. Making decisions based on assumptions about what worked or did not work before limits you to a restricted choice and can blind you to better solutions.

How can we check our assumptions? Here are some tips:
1. Recognize that you and everyone else have ingrained assumptions about every situation.
2. Ask plenty of basic questions in order to discover and challenge those assumptions.
3. Pretend you are a complete outsider and ask questions like ‘why do we do it this way at all?’
4. Reduce a situation to its simplest components in order to take it out of your environment.
5. Restate a problem in different terms.
6. Ask what the experts and professionals advise and then consider doing the opposite.

Ask Searching Questions
Innovative leaders ask fundamental questions about their business and about every situation. It is tempting to appear decisive by jumping straight to the conclusions and making rapid decisions. But the chances are that those rapid decisions are predictable courses based on existing assumptions and prejudices and that another chance for innovation has escaped.

You need to maintain an abnormally large sense of curiosity. At work you must question every aspect of the organisation as though you were a consultant or a new hire on your first day there. The longer we have been there the harder this is to do. On our first day at work we ask dozens of questions – why do we do this? – how do we make this happen? – what is the purpose of this? – what does this mean? The longer we are in the job the fewer questions we ask, the more assumptions we make and the more complacent we become. You have to keep asking the basic questions and keep listening carefully to the answers. If you ask the same question to different people at different times you will get different answers – and those answers contain clues. More probing questions and more careful listening are the best ways to give you the deeper understanding you need.

In 1985 Intel’s main business was making memory chips, but fierce competition from Japan was turning memory into a commodity with tiny margins. Intel’s founders, Andy Grove and Gordon Moore sat down and asked themselves some tough questions. ‘If we were kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO,’ Grove asked, ‘What do you think he would do?’ ‘Get out of the memory chip business,’ was Moore’s answer. From that insight came the plan to move from memory chips into the higher added-value business of designing and making processor chips. In order to help them think like a new team that had just been appointed Grove and Moore fired themselves in a virtual sense. They walked out of the building in their old personas and walked back in thinking of themselves as newly appointed to the jobs. It was by asking this kind of question and approaching the problem afresh that Grove and Moore could make the transition that would transform the business.

All the great scientific discoverers had questioning minds. Charles Darwin asked the question ‘How can the different islands of the Galapagos have so many different and unique species of animals?’ From his questioning and painstaking research he was able to construct his theory of evolution by natural selection – possibly the most powerful and influential idea ever conceived.

By asking ‘What would the world look like if I rode through it on a beam of light?’ Albert Einstein was able to create his theory of relativity. He imagined a different view of the Universe. Can you use the power of your imagination to conceive an entirely different view of your business? Start by asking the fundamental questions that a Darwin or Einstein might ask.

Take your main business challenge and try asking these sorts of questions:
– Why do we need to solve this problem?
– Why do we do things this way at all?
– How can we restate the problem?
– What if we reversed the problem?
– Who would benefit and who would lose if we solved this problem?
– What are the rules of our business and what would happen if we broke those rules?
– What are we assuming about this situation?
– What would happen if we challenged those assumptions?
– Can we draw a diagram or picture of the problem?
– How would someone in a completely different line of business solve this problem?
– How can we look at this in a different way?
– Can we model the problem?
– How would someone from another planet solve this problem?
– If we had unlimited money and resources how would we solve this problem?

Imagination and Knowledge
Einstein famously said ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’ But we put much greater store on knowledge. Most of a child’s time at school is devoted to the acquisition, retention and testing of knowledge. Children learn methods and facts and are then tested on how well they can apply those methods and remember those facts. How much time is spent on developing the child’s imagination? How much time do we spend teaching thinking as a skill? It is far too little.

Knowledge is important but it was not knowledge that enabled Leonardo da Vinci to conceive of the helicopter. It was his imagination. Thinking skills, creativity and imagination are the keys to creative problem solving. One of the most important creative skills we need to learn is the art of questioning. We should question everything, every cherished assumption, every rule and method of the business. We should start by asking the fundamental questions which a child or a Martian would ask – Why do we do this at all? Why do we do it this way? By challenging the most basic tenets of the organization and they way we do things we can prepare the ground for a crop of creative new ideas.

Most people ask one or two questions and then rush straight towards a solution. It is a natural tendency – we think we understand the issue and our keen managerial problem-solving urges are unleashed. It is natural and fatal. With an incomplete understanding it is very easy to jump to the wrong conclusions. It is only by holding back and asking question after question that we can explore the situation fully and find more solutions and more creative solutions.

Tips for asking questions
Start with open-ended questions that elicit a wide range of answers rather than closed questions, which can be answered yes or no. So instead of ‘Is our marketing generating enough leads?’ (answer – no) it is better to ask, ‘How can we generate twice as many leads?’

It is often useful to start with challenging ‘How’ questions. e.g.
– How can we create a new product that delivers twice the customer value?
– How can we cut our inventories in half?
– How can we recruit the best staff?
– How can we reach new prospects?
– How can we cut our cost base by 25%?
– How can we cut waiting times in half?

These questions mean that an incremental or marginal improvement is not enough. We are looking for significant improvements.

Great leaders inspire their teams, foster a climate of creativity and make innovations happen. They start by challenging all existing ground rules and assumptions. They challenge everything and they expect those around them to challenge everything. They know it is better to ask some of the questions than to pretend that they have all of the answers.

Paul Sloane speaks and writes on lateral thinking and innovation. He is the founder of Destination Innovation, which helps organisations improve innovation. The ideas in this article are drawn from his book, The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills, published by Kogan-Page.

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