A key but often overlooked foundation of most problem-solving attempts is the assumptions you accept in analyzing the situation and searching for a solution. Although at times you may not be fully aware of some of them, they’re always extremely important.
For example, if your sales pitch is working poorly on too many prospects and you seek to improve it, you may start with such sensible assumptions as:
- Your prospects have been well-qualified, likely buyers of whatever you’re selling,
- Your pricing and other terms have been competitive,
- Your standing and reputation in the market are both positive,
- You can get better results by making your existing pitch more effectively.
Your assumptions may well be true. But if you happen to be wrong about one or more of them, you’ll waste a lot of time and effort looking for a solution, and ultimately may craft one that yields little or no improvement in results.
That’s a big reason why a vital stage of effective problem solving – after you’ve accurately defined the problem – is to examine and validate your important assumptions.
Here are some suggestions for how to do this:
Codify Your Assumptions
Just like solving a problem is difficult unless you’ve accurately identified it, validating your assumptions is almost impossible until you know what they are.
That’s why it’s crucial to identify what you think is true about your situation. While you may quite easily identify some of your assumptions, there may be others hidden in your unconscious mind, requiring considerable effort to uncover.
Start by answering some basic questions, such as:
- What do we know about the situation at hand?
- Where do we get this information?
- How reliable are these sources?
- How accurately have we understood them?
- What filters or selective processes are in place?
- What are our relevant goals, values, and interests?
- What relevant norms, rules, and expectations do we honor?
For many of your answers, it’s helpful to dig a little deeper and ask “why?”
Once you’re confident you’re aware of all – or at least your most important – assumptions, you can begin to ….
Test Your Assumptions
Faulty assumptions will almost always lead you astray, causing you to overlook useful possibilities and unnecessarily lock yourself into sub-optimal results.
Methods of testing your assumptions include:
Experiment with Changes
An important test of your assumptions is to see what happens if you dig into them. For example:
- Look at key words. If you redefine a word, or change it to the opposite meaning, or substitute other words in its place, what would this do to your options and/or results?
- Look at modifying words like “always” and “never.” Do they make each assumption too broad? Too narrow?
- Flip the assumption. What options and/or results might become available if you replace an assumption with its opposite? If you simply discard one or more of your assumptions?
- Test their coherence. Check your assumptions against each other. Does one contradict another? Does any of them rest on a deeper, more fundamental assumption?
Get a Broader View
Another way to test assumptions is to share them with people you trust in other fields, who have other expertise and/or fresh eyes. They may spot a problem with your assumptions that you have simply overlooked or forgotten, or one that is or becoming outdated.
It’s even possible that assumptions people take for granted in other settings would also be helpful when applied to yours.
If and when you find flaws in any of your assumptions, it’s important you accept the evidence and make appropriate changes or conceive of new and better assumptions. The goal is to improve the basis on which you attempt to solve problems and make decisions.
Note: This has been a broad and unspecific discussion because there’s no way to cover every assumption that arises in every work and life situation.
But I’m hoping it has given you a good enough idea of how to rethink what you think regarding the fundamentals of your situations and problems, at least enough to help you make the best choices about how to move forward.
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