There is an old American joke that goes:
“When you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME.”
How true. While I won’t deny their usefulness, assumptions can be dangerous things. They are particularly dangerous when made about your customers.
Polaroid was a pioneer in digital imagery, having designed a digital film back for large format cameras in the early 1990s. However, they didn’t bring their invention to market until 1996 because they had been trying to find a way to bundle it with a printer. Polaroid was so caught up in producing instant prints, it never occurred to them that their customers might be willing, indeed happy, to look at images on a computer screen. They had made assumptions based on their then current business model, which had been in place for decades.
Likewise, about a dozen years ago a company then called the Nation Publishing Group (NPG), a Bangkok company which produced magazines and newspapers in Thai, English and Japanese, was all set to launch an English language fortnightly tabloid for teenagers. They wanted to call it Nation Junior. The guy in charge of the communications division of NPG said it was a bad title and could kill the magazine. “Teens won’t like the condescending ‘junior’ in the title” he said. The group ignored his advice, published the magazine and it was a resounding success, soon becoming their best selling title. The head of communications was a westerner – who was relatively new to Thailand – and made assumptions about Thai teenagers based on his experience with teens in Europe and America. Truth be told, that guy also happened to be me!
Getting caught up in a corporate culture also includes taking on corporate assumptions. Moreover, it is all too easy to assume your customers view your products in the same way that you do and use your products only in the ways you expect them to do.
In larger B2B (business to business) companies, the situation is worse because often only sales people have direct contact with the customers. Other departments do their own thing, based on assumptions about customers. In the case of B2C (business to consumers) companies, the situation is not so bad because people throughout the organization are likely to be consumers of their company’s products.
What can you do? Destroy your assumptions!
First, put someone in charge of destroying assumptions: an Assumption Destruction Manager.
The Assumption Destruction Manager should initially sit down with a team representing a cross-section of your company’s human resources. Run a brainstorm session to come up with as many assumptions about your products, services and customers as you can in 40-60 minutes. One person should make a list of assumptions while everyone else shouts out assumptions about their products and services. All assumptions should be written down. No criticism allowed!
At the end of the session compile all proposed assumptions into a single list. Sometimes, multiple assumptions can be combined under one assumption. Other assumptions may not be relevant. Others may be incontrovertible facts (although be careful not to assume assumptions are facts).
The next step will require some weeks, if not months. The assumption destruction manager must go through all assumptions on the list, on an assumption by assumption basis, and assume they are wrong. This should be done in groups that include relevant staff and, where possible, customers, suppliers and business partners. Alternatively, you could hire consultants – such as my colleagues and I – to assist (is that subtle self promotion or what?).
With each assumption, assume it is wrong and ask:
- If the assumption is wrong, what alternative situations might exist (call these neo-assumptions).
- If the neo-assumptions are true, how can we alter our products and services to better suit the situation. A follow up brainstorming session might be useful for generating ideas here.
- If step two requires a significant change in the way we do business, how can we test the original assumption as well as the neo-assumptions?
- Perform those tests.
- If changes are necessary, draw up an action plan.
Once all assumptions have been analyzed, compile all the action plans together into one grand action plan.
Destroying your assumptions is no minor task. It will require substantial resources in terms of time and people. Yet, if you’ve been in business for more than five years, it is probably critical: you almost certainly making out of date assumptions about your products, services and customers.
What are your favorite ways to destroy your assumptions.
Jeffrey Baumgartner is the founder of jpb.com, makers of Jenni innovation process management software. He also edits Report 103, a popular eJournal on business innovation. Contact Jeffrey at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.jpb.com/