Assumptions are the sworn enemy of robust forward planning of any type. One of the basic axioms of foresight is that our assumptions blind us to possibilities. So we need to examine our assumptions as much as possible…right?

Easier said than done as assumptions play a fundamental role for us. If we did not have them, and everything started from first principles, we would not get out of the house in the morning. We use assumptions to short circuit thinking processes – when I turn on the hot tap I assume hot water will come out of it. How many minutes have you wasted in hotel rooms with unfamiliar showers trying to work out where the hot water comes from?? Assumptions speed up this type of process. Where they trip us up is in big picture thinking about the future. Any report, modelling or forecast will have assumptions built into it as the future is not yet known therefore we MUST assume something. Can you critically examine these assumptions and better still can you catch them before they are accepted as fact?

So, how do we deal with assumptions in organisations and when thinking about the future? We need four ingredients – mindset, culture, embodied behaviours and systemic rewards.

Mindset – can you ask dumb questions? Are you able to be the ‘idiot’ who asks the question that you may be the only person who doesn’t know the answer to? Are you able to question the emperor’s new clothes – can you take risks? The internal ability or mindset to approach problems with a beginner’s mind, to ask the dumb questions and to risk your incompetence being demonstrated is a key attribute of able long-term thinkers. If you self-image is wrapped up in always being the expert or looking competent then there is a very high likelihood that you will never be an able long-term thinker. If you are able to put down the need to be right and pick up curiosity and develop the ability to ask excellent questions then you are part-way to developing a capacity for the long term view.

Culture – is the uncovering and questioning of assumptions ‘allowed’ within the culture of your organisation? Or are the elephants in the room outnumbering the people?  Many groups do not allow the unspoken assumptions to be questioned and those that do are asked to remove themselves. There is always risk in asking the obvious question, especially if you are exposing those higher up the hierarchy to difficult questions and asking them to make hard choices. There are many organisational cultures that allow assumptions to flourish in order to duck hard decision-making and these organisations invariably end up in difficult places.

Embodied behaviours – do your senior managers ask dumb questions or are they too wrapped up in looking like they know it all? If the leaders within an organisation are not actively trying to uncover the assumptions operating within the group, there is little chance for a culture of open discussion and robust debate to be established, let alone flourish. If the CEO can model this behaviour but allows their direct reports to do otherwise, there is no chance a culture of questioning will flourish. Command and control works in situations that are complicated, with solutions that can be developed over time by smart people putting their heads together. It does not work in complex environments where solutions will only ever be partial and a system view is required to navigate past obstacles and to take advantage of opportunities.

Finally, what are the rewards generated by the system in operation? Humans like to operate within known systems. Most people coming new into an organisation will work out what behaviours and mindsets are required by the rewards on offer. Does your organisation reward the questioning of assumptions? Will you receive a positive performance review if you are happy to look stupid on occasion and say you don’t know, or are those who exude confidence and always have the answer given the bonus or the promotion? If you do not have questioning behaviours present in your organisation or you are constantly being undone by assumptions, then look at your system of explicit and implicit rewards to see what behaviours are being promoted over others. Remember the system always works perfectly, if you don’t like the outcome then the system will need to be changed.

Developing the mindset, culture, behaviours and rewards that support the review and questioning of assumptions is not easy but it will deliver the ability for your organisation to engage in robust planning for the future.

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