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Challenging Assumptions and Their Mental Models

Everyone uses assumptions in their everyday lives. Yes, that includes… YOU. Assumptions affect our everyday lives and if we take time to understand them, it’ll improve your personal and professional life. Let’s talk about that! At Bridgeport Digital, knowledge workers are a part of the conversation because it’s their knowledge that helps organizations understand their assumptions. By understanding your assumptions, you can make better decisions that help you attain your goal.

Firstly, there are different types of assumptions…

There are assumptions upper management has vetted and sometimes they believe their assumptions are facts. Managers will call them facts but we’ll use a more loose term, such as, being presumptuous. We use theories as a prediction of the future in the healthiest and most practical application of knowledge. For that reason, the expectation, because it’s been vetted by upper management, is that others won’t challenge it.

  • When you use an assumption to make your decision, it becomes a constraint because it limits your ability to innovate solutions.

  • They become constraints because being vetted doesn’t make it true unless its hypothesis has been tested proving so.

  • Assumptions become constraints because they limit the number of solutions to approaching a goal.

The expectation is, it’s not included with the round of things you check over and the problem with that is companies don’t always explain this. Consequently, when it’s challenged, and what is said is true, upper management becomes angry and frustrated over it and this causes confusion.

“It's most presumptuous to believe we already know all the answers and will never get any more big surprises.” - Stanley Schmidt

Secondly, another category of assumptions includes thoughts and predictions.

Let me humor you, I call this assumption a WAG (wild ass guess). In other words, upper management understands that they don’t know much about your area of expertise compared to you. Upper management knows you’re the knowledge expert (worker), which means despite the fact that you work for someone else you know more about it than they do.

  • It’s the opposite of constraints, they expect you to apply your knowledge to it by challenging it.

  • They anticipate they’re wrong about their assumption and you’ll come up with a better one.

Additionally, in a third category of assumptions, there are special things that require special testing, called ‘foundational items.’

In this category, I’ve come up with a solution, or a conclusion, without looking for facts or making an assumption. Instead, I’ve done the opposite because I’ve started with the end in mind, “In order for my conclusion to work, what things must be true?” I want to test this assumption because if they’re not true, then my solution isn’t attainable.

Let me give you an example:

Let’s look at our training classes. We can get a lot of people in the training classes, it’s a matter of reaching out and finding the right people. If I plan to do a class a month and gain twenty people, the assumption I’m making needs to be true because it's foundational. As the president of Bridgeport Digital, I specialize in agile performance management and have done consulting work in many different places. To further explain, I can reach any organization and add an agile group because there are many people out of work, or looking for work, or looking to transition into a career that wants certification. If they know about my class and they can get a discount, they'll likely attend the class. If that isn’t true, I most likely won’t be able to reach that many people. I came up with a solution and in order for it to work, the foundational item (assumption) must be true because if it isn't, the solution isn't true. Each category of assumptions are different and should be treated as such.

“We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.” – Maya Angelou

In my experience, if there isn’t a rule about challenging assumptions, people make decisions based on how to destroy your argument instead of using logic. In other words, if I can pick apart your argument, whether or not it’s based on facts, I’d perceive that as a victory (others too), and we’d proceed with my decision. There’s a natural tendency to not test out whether or not the foundational item is correct. Rather, in conversations, what people do is attempt to ruin one another’s arguments. The worst part is, in society we tend to blur the facts and the conclusions drawn on the facts.

They’re two different things; a fact is something you can check on in order to validate it.

Our methodology will be tested because all parties need to agree. By definition, a fact is something that can be verified, I can check the information. Pertaining to assumptions, we need to agree and put it in a category before testing it. Eventually, we need to agree on a type of assessment on the likelihood of falsehood.

  • The things that are more likely to be false and/or have a bigger impact on the decisions we make, are the things we should test first.

    • The things that are more likely to be true and/or have a smaller impact on our decisions can be tested later on.

  • This will allow me to prioritize everything from top to bottom, working in that order.

Simply put, divide true facts from assumptions interpreted and believed as facts. When companies fail to do this and management becomes upset, it’s typical for them to interpret a disagreement as nefarious intent; such as someone else trying to get their way or intentionally being unfair. Personal attacks are common because of assumptions pertaining to intentions. For this reason, it’s important to have a process, both logical and agreed upon, to get others to agree on facts before discussing conclusions. After we go through a process that helps everyone agree on the facts, any assumptions left out are agreed as part of our process.

I propose a methodology where it’s necessary to use similar techniques, to get a common set of facts; so that we can use it as a base to make decisions.

In legal proceedings, they go through a process where both sides list all the facts to see where they agree. Once they agree, facts are put into this category called, “Facts and Evidence.” When both sides agree on the facts and evidence, it’s proper for both parties to use it as a premise to form a conclusion. If someone uses a conclusion or an assumption, that the other party doesn’t agree to, and they try to use it as basis for an argument or to impeach a witness, that’s a foul. In fact, the judge will reprimand a party for that because it wasn’t agreed that it was factual. Other professions have structures in place where they agree on facts so there’s mutual meaning and a common pool of understanding.

“Employees seem to have a universal concern for fairness that transcends the self.” - Deborah Rupp

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