Challenging Assumptions Leads to Greater Innovation
One of the principles we teach as part of our practice is to challenge assumptions and to question accepted beliefs. It’s important to use this principle in working with any team developing new plans. It allows for a greater range of possibilities and ultimately could encourage greater innovation in whatever outcome you and your team are pursuing. But this principle isn’t easy to practice. We, all have a set of mental models - the images, assumptions, and stories, which we carry in our mind about ourselves, other people, institutions, and every aspect of the world. These mental models frame how we see and react to the world and ultimately are what create our assumptions. Everyone has his or her own mental models, and that explains how two different people can see the same event and describe it very differently.
The difficulty with challenging assumptions is it’s not easy to do. It requires a lot of personal self awareness and willingness to be open to exploration. So how to you develop an awareness of your mental models and how do you help your team do the same? Here are some ideas to get your started.
· Step 1 : Learn to recognize when you are going up the Chris Argyris’ ladder of inference. The ladder of inference is a thinking process we can get caught in. The way it works is
· First, we have an experience – we see something or someone says something to us. That experience is a data point. Think about the last meeting you were in where someone quoted some data you disagreed or were unfamiliar with. Think about how you reacted to that data?
· Second, those reactions are how we start to make meaning of the data. If you disagreed with the data , why? Was it the person presenting it? You’ve got a “history” with this person. Was the data something you didn’t know about? Did the data start to make you angry or excited?
· Third, we start to draw conclusions from the reactions and meanings we have made about the information. You may have found yourself saying – who does this guy think he is? Or What a great idea but it will never work here? See how assumptions can start to shut down new ideas.
· Finally, we take actions from our conclusions. Did you jump into the conversation and tell the presenter why that idea won’t work here? Or did you take him out to lunch to learn more?
· Step 2: Staying focused on challenging assumptions requires you to ask about the actual facts. What do we know for sure? What are the real numbers behind the situation? Some examples of questions that can get you actual data are:
· What is our actual employee turnover?
· What categories are increasing in our cost of goods?
· What are sales in our emerging markets?
· Step 3: Now, make your thinking transparent and ask others to do the same. By doing this, everyone gets a better sense of how people are thinking. People can understand where you are coming from and can ask you why you’re thinking what you are thinking. Some examples:
· Here is how I am interpreting the increase in our cost of goods?
· This is how I am thinking about sales in China?
· This is what I think is going on with our employee turnover.
· Ask others how they see the situation. By getting everyone’s point of view on the situation you get a richer interpretation of the data.
· Now that you know how everyone sees the situation, you can assess whether the assumptions are valid or need to be challenged.
This isn’t easy to do but it’s worth the effort to be able to explore new ideas, strategies and innovations that might have a huge impact on your business. Having a trained facilitator can be helpful for teams to learn how to do challenge assumptions more effectively. Share with us what successful practices or struggles you’ve had with this principle of Challenging Assumptions.
By Julie Young Senior Consultant