Did Your Assumptions Kill Your Growth?

All of us have assumptions.  Your assumptions influence how you behave, how you interact with people, and the practices you employ in your organization.  When leaders assume, they’re assumptions affect their decisions and their decisions shape the organization’s culture and outcomes.

In their book, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, & Total Nonsense, Jeffry Pfeffer and Robert Sutton assert that “Following deeply held yet unexamined ideologies” is a flawed and widespread basis for decision making.

So what’s the big deal about assumptions?  If everybody has them why does it even matter?  In their Harvard Business Review article, “When Growth Stalls,” Matthew Olson, Derek Van Bever, and Seth Verry make a very important observation about assumptions in their company case studies:

“One culprit in all our case studies was management’s failure to bring the underlying assumptions that drive company strategy into line with changes in the external environment–whether because of a lack of awareness that the gap existed or was widening, or because of faulty prioritization.”

In other words, while numerous factors caused growth to stall in the companies they studied, the common denominator was their “underlying assumptions.”  Now here’s the real kicker:  “When we examine individual case studies, we so often find that those assumptions the team has held the longest or the most deeply are the likeliest to be its undoing.”  Your assumptions can kill your growth.  Olson, Van Bever, and Verry propose that organizations create a team to hunt for the organization’s “most deeply held assumptions about itself and the industry in which it operates.”

There’s another angle to the assumptions challenge.  It’s really easy to assume that what another organization is doing will work in your organization as well.  So in an effort to jumpstart growth, we often rip off an idea from another organization and assume it will work in our setting as well.  Pfeffer and Sutton propose that organizations ask a series of assumption questions before trying a business idea or practice:

1.  What assumptions does the idea or practice make about people and organizations?  What would have to be true about people and organizations for the idea or practice to be effective?

2.  Which of these assumptions seem reasonable and correct to you and your colleagues?  Which seem wrong or suspect?

3.  Could this idea or practice still succeed if the assumptions turned out to be wrong?

4.  How might you and your colleagues quickly and inexpensively gather some data to test the reasonableness of the underlying assumptions?

5.  What other ideas or management practices can you think of that would address the same problem or issue and be more consistent with what you believe to be true about people and organizations?

Assumptions are a big deal–a really big deal.  It takes discipline for a leader to dig deep and discover the assumptions that are driving the organization.  But the payoff can be huge if you’re willing to hunt.  What are the assumptions driving your organization?