Assumptions are a natural part of life. Despite the negative connotation they often convey — like stereotypes — their purpose is to provide a shortcut to understanding. This can actually be a good thing in many cases, especially when we need to rapidly assimilate information.
However, as you probably well know, there can be downsides. Assumptions that are never questioned can lead to serious dysfunction. Organizations often run on a slew of different assumptions that end up being passed down from one employee to another, either explicitly or more indirectly.
You’d think more people would ask, “Wait, why do we do it this way?”
New employees, or employees from different departments performing cross-functional roles, are particularly well suited to ask this question. The thing is, they’re not always encouraged to do so.
And the rest of us have been living with certain assumptions for so long that we no longer feel the need to ask why we do something a certain way…or use a particular strategy…or perform any routinized behavior, for that matter.
For this reason, we recommend that teams regularly and proactively question assumptions. Of course, it’s impractical to do this everyday, but a bi-annual or quarterly meeting would do wonders for most organizations. In this meeting, ask employees to write down three assumptions about the way things are done. They don’t have to all be earth-shattering, but can range from, “Why do we plan company happy hours on Fridays?” to “Why haven’t we tried a direct to consumer approach for our products instead of fighting for distribution?” The assumption behind the former might be that employees would be uninterested in attending a work event in the middle of the week, and the latter might be based on a concern that your company couldn’t sell effectively if it weren’t in stores. Both of these assumptions are worth questioning because they may, in fact, be wrong. (And don’t feel confined to your office, as it can be beneficial to just get outside or, better yet, go on one of our Breakthrough Treks. Likewise, if you’re looking to dive deep on this issue, our Hybrid SWOT program is well suited for the task.)
In our business, one assumption we had made was that there were only two modes of communication that worked for us internally – email and face-to-face. We had discussed the pros and cons of group chat at one point, but the conclusion was basically that we had been effective so far without chat, so what’s the point in introducing it? Plus, it could lead to confusion around urgency of a message or a lack of personal communication. These, of course, are assumptions.
After reading some positive reviews about the increasingly popular group chat service Slack, we decided to test our assumption as to whether or not we could benefit from a communication mode that sat somewhere between email and in-person. Lo and behold, it worked for us exceptionally well. It fulfilled a great role in terms of urgency of communication – not important enough to stop someone in the middle of something they were working on, but not something that could wait to be answered in a day or two either.
We still occasionally check-in about our use of this communication channel because we don’t want to assume that it’s always working when it might not be serving a particular use well. Culturally, we want to make sure that we’re not relying on assumptions. Being proactive about this can be difficult at times, and it can be a stretch to be open to new ways of viewing things, but we assure you it’s worth the effort.
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