Friday, March 25, 2016

The Imperative (& Art) of Challenging Assumptions

Scott Mautz
Guest blogger Scott Mautz, MBA’94 is an award-winning keynote speaker and 20+ year veteran of Procter & Gamble, where he currently runs the company's largest, multi-billion dollar business. He is also the author of the book Make It Matter: How Managers Can Motivate by Creating Meaning.

There is a silent, guiding force in your life that has more influence than you can imagine. We instinctively know the impact that friends and family have on how we live our lives. We know how powerful our dreams and aspirations can be for affecting how we carry on. We know how our desire to be healthy can affect our habits or how our romantic interest in someone can affect our behavior. All are forces in our world as seen and felt as a driving rain. 

But do we ever stop to really consider how the assumptions we make shape and mold our actions, behaviors, and our lives? The impact is profound. Our assumptions can derail dreams, stop progress in its tracks, self-impose limits, create self-fulfilling prophecies, distort motives and harm relationships, kill creativity, and lead us down unwanted paths. Some assumptions we make with great awareness, many are on autopilot running our lives and guiding our decisions like a subconscious consigliere. 

Now I’m not talking about the power of positive thinking – assume you’ll succeed and you will kinda stuff. I’m talking about assumptions taken as fact, that become beliefs, and that ultimately misguide us. It is up to us to tunnel our way out of a life constricted by tunnel vision. When we challenge our assumptions, a veil lifts and new possibilities open up. We shatter misconceptions that have been weighing us down. We leave behind “knowing syndrome” and embrace “growing syndrome”. We see the world differently, more clearly, more vibrantly. The power of truth unfolds before our eyes. 

Here’s 9 ways to help set those truths free in your work life, and life in general:
  1. Remember all the stakeholders – Assumptions are often based on things that may or may not be true - think of all the stakeholders involved and how they’d view your assumptions. Would the product supply team agree that you will have enough capacity? Would the researchers agree they can deliver the innovation on time? Would the finance person agree that your investment will generate acceptable returns? 
  2. Force fresh perspective – We can fall in a pattern of operating within the same set of assumptions over and over because we continually see things with the same perspective. Break the stasis and bring in fresh viewpoints. Bring outsiders into a brainstorming session. Bring back people that were part of better, winning days and talk to them about what drove success at that time. Conduct a session where you view the world through a competitors eyes and model their responses to your moves. Whatever the source, create some tension with the status quo. 
  3. Watch your language – Words of absolutism can sneak into our assumptions, turning accurate statements into over-generalizations. Stop and pause when you use words and phrases like “never”, “always”, “all of”, and “none of”. Take time to really qualify your qualifiers.1
  4. Think like a science teacher – Assumptions are essentially hypotheses. In the world of science, hypotheses are either accepted or refuted with proof. Call out assumptions when you hear them to raise awareness. Then ask yourself if the assumption on the table has been actually proven, and if so, does it still hold true? 
  5. Question your questions – As a leader, you can closely examine the types of questions you ask the team, ensuring you have a helpful dose of assumption challenging questions in the mix. Of course you shouldn’t pester the team with an unending stream – this is about reexamining the portfolio of leadership questions you ask. Perhaps less information request or status update questions and more assumption challenging questions are in order.
  6. Expand time - Many assumptions are based on past history – don’t get stuck there. Regard the past, yes, but don’t disregard what may have changed. That said, it’s also important to not get stuck in the now and to view your assumptions through the lens of how things might be in the future. How might industry trends change or negate your assumptions? Finally, the idea of expanding time also means to literally expand the amount of time you allot for the process of challenging assumptions. We often make assumptions because it’s easier and quicker. For certain, challenging assumptions can be difficult and time consuming, but you have to do it – too much is riding on getting it right.
  7. Ask why – Assumptions can quickly have gaping holes exposed when you simply ask why - “Why do you believe that assumption is true?”2 The rationale or root cause behind the assumption might rapidly be revealed as weak at best.
  8. Don’t let data numb you – From time to time I will say to my team, “Use data to go from ‘I think’ to ‘I know’. But don’t let ‘I know’ get in the way of ‘I think’.” While data should certainly be used to inform our decisions, sometimes we can rely on it at the expense of using our gut or in lieu of challenging the assumptions behind the data. Keep a balance. 
  9. Double click on pain point assumptions – Not all assumptions are created equal. Identify the one or two most critical assumptions you are making and spend extra time challenging them.
Lohrbeer, T., “How to Challenge Your Assumptions” October 11, 2011,
2 Ibid.

Scott Mautz has been named a "Top 50 Leadership Innovator" by Inc. Magazine and a “2015 CEO Leadership Thought Leader” by Chief Executive Guild. Scott has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur, Inc., The Accidental Creative, Switch-n-Shift and many other national publications and podcasts and has keynoted many times at top companies and universities across the country on a variety of leadership and workplace fulfillment topics. Connect with Scott at


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