Our decisions will determine the quality of our lives. Making good decisions is more of a discipline than a skill, especially when it comes to overriding our assumptions.
Whenever we have to make a critical decision, we face a Catch-22; we can’t make decisions without assumptions, but assumptions are often the cause of decisional error!
Assumptions, in and of themselves, are neither good nor bad, but when it comes to making decisions that will define our lives, businesses, and careers, we need to be very clear on what it is we’re taking for granted because failure to do so will lead to decisional disaster.
To show you just how easily our assumptions can render us completely blind to the most obvious information, I’m going to challenge you to a little game I call …
Can You Spot Your Assumption?
Take a few moments and consider the following challenge:
Here’s a prediction; if you don’t know the answer to the above challenge it’s because you are temporarily blinded by an assumption. Try reading the challenge again and see if you can’t identify what your assumption might be.
If you haven’t got it let me ask you a question; did you consider the time of day or did you make an assumption?
The “Aha!” realization — and luckily for Midnight — it happens to be daytime.
Our Most Popular Assumptions Are Often Quite Wrong
Countless generations assumed that the Earth was flat, the sun revolved around the Earth, and that our planet was the center of the universe. These universal assumptions were not only self-evident, they were wrong!
In the world of human behavior, social scientists and economists widely assumed (until recently) that people were generally rational and that their thinking was logical and consistent. So much for that!
Outside of a purely abstract field like mathematics, we can never really know anything “for sure” — we can only measure to a certain tolerance. The danger in our assumptions is that they’re often based on misinformation, obsolete data, cultural traditions, status quo bias, and a belief that the future will be predictably similar to the past or present.
Trying to predict future performance by analyzing the past is like driving a car forward while looking at the rearview mirror. ~ Marshall McLuhan
Consider all the major companies that blindly assumed their future would be similar to their past and present. For example:
- Encyclopedia Britannica assumed that people would continue to buy hard copy volumes even though the same information was available in disc form for a fraction of the price.
- Executives at Kodak assumed people would never give up the joys of film, even though digital photography was endlessly practical and virtually free.
- Blockbuster executives assumed their business model was so unassailable that they virtually laughed at Netflix when it offered to sell itself for $50 million and join forces.
We could go on but the point is this; even the biggest companies with the brightest minds will find themselves in serious trouble if they fail to take the time to root out their basic assumptions because failure to do so will render them completely blind to the obvious.
Consider this next challenge and see if you can’t get past your assumptions and spot the answer.
If you don’t know the answer, then you can safely assume you’re guilty of an assumption. So what might it be? Try reading the challenge again and see if you can’t spot it.
The thing that makes this question tricky is the assumption that Dan’s friend is a man. But in this case, Dan’s friend happens to be a woman, and more specifically, his friend is Susan, the mother of the little girl.
Common Assumptions Are All Too Commonly Wrong
The housing market crash of 2007 was nothing short of a house-of-cards built on faulty assumptions such as:
- a belief that housing prices reflected their “relative” value,
- that mortgage loans were reasonably secure, and
- that the banks that had granted those loans had actually done their due diligence.
Or how about picking up our assumptions and venturing into the securities world. Who wouldn’t assume that a Fortune 500 company’s stock price was a “reasonable” reflection of the company’s true value and yet with astonishing regularity, we’ve witnessed these bastions of big business such as General Motors, Lehman Brothers, Chrysler, Texaco, Delta, WorldCom, and United Airlines — to name just a few — declare bankruptcy!
Okay, let’s try one more challenge … see if you can’t spot your “automatic” assumption.
If you haven’t spotted it yet, here’s an additional clue: How old do you think Mike Peters might be?
Suppose he’s younger than you may have originally assumed. Perhaps a lot younger!
It so happens that Mike is a baby.
The Common Fallacies and Assumptions When Making Critical Decisions
Whether we’re talking about Encyclopedia Britannica, Kodak, or General Motors, companies have paid a significant price for assuming that the future would be predictably similar to the past and present.
Four of the most common assumptive errors made by organizations are:
Group Think: Since everyone agrees on the problem and the solution, it’s safe to assume we’re on the right track.
Assuming that Hard Data is Universally Applicable: Hard data is obviously essential but the data and associated base rates must be tested for each situation, it should never be assumed that it’s broadly applicable.
Failing to Recognize that Opportunity is Only a “Sign” of Potential: An opportunity may be identified but before taking action one must NOT assume that it can be readily executed.
The Future Will Be Similar to the Past: This is the big kahuna in our modern world; decision-makers may have the right data and all the reasons to support a decision … provided they can assume today’s environment will remain static. The fact is;
Change will never be slower than it is today.
When Making a Major Decision, What Might YOU Be Taking For Granted?
To help you identify your assumptions ask yourself if you are assuming anything, such as the following:
- The other party will respond as you think they should.
- You’ll feel the same about this matter in the future as you do now.
- Your investment will automatically grow in value.
- Your health will be the same in ten years as it is today.
- Customers will buy your product because you think it’s a good product.
- You can develop the product on time and on budget.
- Conditions and situations from the past and present will be the same in the future.
- The beliefs and behaviors of others are similar to yours … don’t count on it!!!
Assumptions are a vital part of any decision-making process so we want to make sure our assumptions are clearly identified and that they’re based on solid reasoning and scrutiny and NOT take-it-for-granted wishful thinking.
The only way to be certain that you’re making a good decision (before you know the outcome) is to have a decision-making formula. In fact, if you don’t know the quality of your decision before you know the outcome, then you’re not deciding; you’re gambling … it’s called outcome bias … a dangerous disease that afflicts nearly everyone.
When it comes to making an important decision, be sure to ask yourself, “What am I assuming?” … because it’s safe to assume that you are.