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In 1944, an aspiring model was told by the director of the Blue Book Modeling Agency that she’d “better learn secretarial work or get married”.

In 1954, after a teenager had just performed at the Grand Ole Opry, an organizer told him “to go back to drivin’ a truck”. 

In 1962, a band auditioned for Decca Records and was rejected because “guitar groups were on their way out” and the band “had no future in show business”.

In each case, ‘experts’ made decisions based on their assumptions.

Lucky for us that their assumptions were incorrect. And the world got to know Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and The Beatles.

This made me think about the process we use to make decisions. We make choices each day. And we rarely have all the information we need to make the perfect choice. So we do the best we can, with the information we have at the time.

As Rummy once said-

“…you go to war with the Army you have”…“not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

– Donald Rumsfeld

At the risk of offending old Rummy, I am tweaking his quote to suit my nefarious purposes, thusly-

“…you make the best decision you can with the information you have at the time”… “not the information you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

A key role in our decision making is played by our assumptions. In the absence of information, we make assumptions based on experiences, observations, anecdotes and who knows what else. Over time, we learn, evolve and continuously refine our assumptions. Most of them probably serve us well. But, not all of these assumptions are right all of the time.

Every now and then, we pick up a pesky assumption that holds us back from achieving what we are capable of. I suppose, some of them are related to ‘hasty generalizations’ –

“…basing a broad conclusion upon the statistics of a survey of a small group that fails to sufficiently represent the whole population.”

Depending on the association and history, we hold onto some of these assumptions for dear life. We are reluctant to question or test them, no matter how much they cost us. The older those assumptions are, the more infallible they appear to be.

Assumptions, then, I suppose, are a double edged sword. So the question is how does one gain the insight and courage to test the assumptions that hold us back? The answer lies in a law formulated by my friend, Isaac-

 “A body persists in a state of rest or of uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force.”

– Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion, the Law of Inertia

I also remember my brother-in-law, Ashwin Raghu telling me something to similar.

We usually change our behavior only if…

  1. There is a pain point, or a strong dis-incentive to preserve the status quo
  2. There is the promise of pleasure, or a strong incentive to change to a new way of being

I mean, look at Andy Dufresene in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. He was stuck in the Shawshank State Penitentiary in Maine, for two consecutive life sentences. It would have been reasonable for him to assume that he was stuck laundering money for the warden and doing tax-returns for the prison guards for the rest of eternity.

But wait! Let’s apply Ashwin’s theory to examine if conditions were ripe for Andy to test that assumption-

  1. There was a strong dis-incentive to preserve the status quo, of course – the fact that life in the Shawshank State Penitentiary was pretty painful. 
  2. There was a strong incentive to change to a new way of being –  the promise of Andy living his dream as a free man in the Mexican-Pacific coastal town of Zihuatanejo. Quite a pleasant contrast.

So Andy tested his assumptions. And with nothing more than a rock hammer and a Rita Hayward poster, he found his way from Shawshank to the shore front. Not too shabby.

Makes me think about some common assumptions that I have come across in organizations… 

  • “Our decision making process could probably be better. We believe in taking the time to get things right. And sometimes, things change so fast that we may need to revisit the decision before the ink is dry. That’s just the price of doing business in a fast paced environment.”
  • “I do agree that it can sometimes take awhile to get things moving around here, especially when we cross organizational boundaries. I suppose that is only to be expected – each team has it’s own objectives and targets. Although it would be nice to be aligned more often, I am just not sure if that is a realistic.”
  • “Meetings have not been very productive of late. People are either deceptively docile or exasperatingly aggressive. And sometimes those e-mail chains get really long and nasty, with half the company on the To line, and the rest on the CC line. But I guess it’s unavoidable – we had to cut staff and expenses. Workload is high, stress levels are off the chart and that explains the dysfunction.”
  • “I can understand why employees are demoralized. The economy is in the toilet and we really do need to manage costs. There just isn’t any money for rewards, bonuses, pay hikes and promotions. We’re doing the best we can, all things considered. Maybe we can focus on some of this once the recovery kicks in. Until then, we just need to suck it in and make it work.”

Does any of this sound familiar? Have you heard something like this in your organization? Or maybe felt something similar? Each of these is based on a set of assumptions. When was the last time you tested those assumptions? What if you can have more than what you think possible, at a lower cost than you think? Would that be worth your consideration?

But where would one start? How does one generate fresh, innovative ideas in the face of adversity? How does one avoid doing the same old, same old in response to an ever changing landscape? Could a trusted advisor with a fresh set of eyes and ears facilitate such an enquiry?

Sometime ago, I attended a Linkage training class presented by Merrill Anderson, from Cylient. Merrill shared a very powerful insight with us. He observed that it was at times of greatest adversity and challenge, that the first casualties in some businesses are reflection and learning. The tendency is to dig in, rely on old and familiar habits and assumptions; shying away from reflection and learning new ways to respond to unprecedented challenges.

So here are my questions to you, as an individual and as a leader of your organization- 

  • What are the areas where you are being held back from achieving what you know you are capable of?
  • What are the underlying assumptions that are preventing you from getting to the next level of success?
  • When was the last time you tested them?
  • Can a trusted advisor facilitate learning and reflection to help you reach your true potential?

Contact me to see if Org Whisperers can help your organization with this enquiry. We can partner with you to design customized workshops and provide consulting in-

  • Change Management
  • Silo Busting
  • Harnessing Conflict
  • Employee Engagement

My Life Coach – Joy Perkins, once reminded me to test the strength of the prison walls that constrain possibilities in my life. It was the best piece of advice I ever got. And it applies to individuals as well as organizations. Let me know if we can work together to break down some of the prison walls that are holding your organization back. You just may be able to get more than what you assumed possible. At a price lower than you thought possible.

Contact Us to learn how we can help you today!