Going Head to Head with Your Assumptions

by Chris Griffiths

Going Head to Head with Your AssumptionsDon’t get trapped by the assumptions you’re making. Like the big names in industry, you can challenge your assumptions to uncover paradigm-breaking ideas and solutions.

What do the likes of Ford, McDonald’s and Apple all have in common?

If your answer is: “They’re all hugely successful businesses”, then I’m not about to disagree. But take it one step further – how did they achieve their extraordinary industry breakthroughs?

It’s simple – they all succeeded in challenging false assumptions and creating new ways of working in their industry. In other words, they ‘broke the rules’.

Let’s look at each one in turn.

Back in the early 1900s, Henry Ford overthrew the assumption that automobiles were expensive, hand-built carriages solely for the wealthy. He created the assembly line procedure which revolutionised the whole industry. In the food game, McDonald’s challenged the assumption that assembly lines were for cars only, and adopted the same approach for mass producing its meals. More recently, Apple challenged the assumption that a personal computer needed to be just functional and that visual appeal wasn’t important to customers.

The result of these actions? Real innovative success!

By tackling ingrained beliefs head on, these three players were able to bring radical new insights into their field. And that’s all an assumption is – a belief or an idea that we believe to be true, simply because it’s been drilled into us by our parents, teachers and society in general. But treating an assumption as a ‘fact’ can be dangerous.

It’s the same when we come across a problem in any walk of life. A great thinker will overcome accepted conventions to make that tremendous leap forward. Consider these examples:

  • Van Gogh, Monet and other Impressionist artists went against contemporary beliefs of what constituted good art, and ended up creating their revered masterpieces.
  • In 1510, Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus challenged the idea that “the heavenly bodies move around the Earth”, hypothesising that the Earth revolved around the sun instead. Guess what? He was right!
  • Edwin L. Drake defied the pre-existing beliefs on how oil could be obtained when, in 1859, he became the first man in America to drill into the ground for oil.

Now don’t get me wrong – assumptions can be accurate sometimes and help us to act quickly when we need to; but usually they hold us back from being truly innovative. After all, innovation comes from doing things differently, not from firmly sticking to solutions that have worked in the past. You need to challenge some incorrect beliefs if you want to find that BIG idea. Here are some typical assumptions people make in the business world – could any of these be holding you back?

  • Our largest customers are the most important customers
  • Our company needs to have a diverse range of businesses to survive
  • We should only hire people who fit in well with our team

Brilliant thinkers realise that ideas that have long been regarded as fact can still be effectively challenged. If you want to be really creative in the decisions you make, you need to recognise that there’s a world of possibilities for you to explore.

How can you challenge your assumptions?

There are all sorts of suggestions out there. My own involves a simple three-step method you can follow. It’s helpful to use a Mind Map to work your way through it:

STEP 1 – State Your Problem

First, you need to clearly state the problem you want to solve or opportunity you want to crack. We’ll use McDonald’s as an example – “To create a successful restaurant franchise.”

STEP 2 – Identify Assumptions

Secondly, you need to map out all the assumptions, boundaries and ground rules you’re holding with respect to the situation. For instance, in order to run a successful food business McDonald’s would have identified the assumptions that 1) Food must be cooked from scratch for each new customer, 2) Wait staff is needed to serve customers.

STEP 3 – Challenge Each Assumption

Finally, you need to challenge each of the assumptions to see if they’re correct or can actually be done away with. In this story, McDonald’s has the remarkable realisation that desirable food can be mass-produced quickly using precooked ingredients.  It also has the insight that wait staff can easily be bypassed in favour of service at the counter.

This is such a simple but illuminating exercise.  I don’t think you can ever realise just how many incorrect assumptions you have until you make the effort to confront them.  You can find out more about challenging assumptions and other aspects of creative problem solving in my latest book ‘GRASP The Solution: How to find the best answers to everyday challenges’.

Assumptions are everywhere – they get in the way when you’re solving problems, and can even hold entire businesses back! It’s high time to tackle them head on and unleash all the ideas you’ve been missing. So, let us know – what assumptions are holding you back in your life and work? How can you challenge them?  You never know, doing it might lead you to an amazing breakthrough!

image credit: topwrestlers.com


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Chris GriffithsChris Griffiths is the CEO of ThinkBuzan, the organisation behind Mind Mapping and iMindMap software. He lectures to audiences worldwide on creativity and innovation, and is the author of Amazon bestsellers ‘GRASP The Solution‘ and ‘Mind Maps for Business’.

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