Assumptions Have a Sell-By Date

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🗓️ Publish Date
August 21, 2006
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We can't expect to innovate new products, services, techniques, etc. without challenging our assumptions. Have some of your assumptions "gone off"? How frequently are you checking? In other words, do you have a plan in place for regularly sniffing the milk? I swear that half my battles at Sun were about questioning assumptions... many of which had been around long enough to be science fair projects.

When you're stuck with the inertia of outdated assumptions, you're stuck with incremental (not revolutionary) improvements. The Head First books, for example, would never have happened if we hadn't been able to convince Tim O'Reilly that typical programming books were based on an assumption that was just plain wrong.

We all talk about challenging assumptions, but what does that really mean? Because if we don't go deep enough--deep enough to get to the foundation on which all subsequent assumptions are based--we might as well not waste our time. Here's a typical scenario:

Fred: Let's challenge our assumptions here people... are we certain that customers won't like this?

Jim: Yes.

Fred: How do we know? Where's the data?

Jim: It came out clearly in focus group testing.

Fred: But how recent were those focus groups?

Jim: Very recent--less than a year ago.

Fred: But what did they actually test?

Jim: They tested this exact feature.

Fred: OK, then let's move on. Tell engineering to cut that from the spec.

There's a textbook example of challenging an assumption, without challenging the assumptions below. The underlying, unchallenged assumption here is that focus groups work (when we know focus groups are notoriously unreliable for many things).

It's assumptions all the way down.

A few tips:

1) List them.Yes, that's a "duh" statement, but seriously... how many times do you actually SEE assumptions explicitly called out?

2) Give them a Sell By date.Slap a date on these puppies and have a system in place for knowing when to sniff them! Whether its a database or spreadsheet or just a big chart on the wall that y'all agree to review once a month or quarter or whatever, the point is to guarantee that you really WILL sniff them all on a regular basis.

3) Challenge them all the way down.Question something and then question what it's based on, and then what that is based on, and so on... until you get to the bottom. And when you hit bottom, keep questioning until you're absolutely positively sure it's the bottom.

4) When you challenge an assumption, make it fight for its life.Put it on trial. Force it to defend itself. Be relentless. Be skeptical. Be brutal.

These are all rather obvious tips, yet so often overlooked. But simply listing and challenging our assumptions on a regular basis isn't the biggest problem.

The really big problem is the assumptions which are so ingrained that we don't even know they're assumptions. They become an accepted Law of Physics, as good as gravity.

It does little good to list (and date) our assumptions, if the most crucial ones--the ones that could lead to the biggest innovations and breakthroughs--never make it to the list. It's not enough to say, "So, what are our assumptions here?" We have to ask--and keep asking--"So, what are we accepting as fact and not questioning as an assumption?" In other words, "What are our hidden assumptions? What do we believe implicitly?"

It's not enough to "sniff the milk." We have to recognize that some of the things which we believe are part of the fabric of our universe might just be milk in disguise.

And while I'm using Fundamental Laws of Physics as a metaphor for the things we believe implicitly about customers, products, etc. it seems that even the real laws of physics need a sniff from time to time.