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How Assumptions Undermine Problem Solving

How to make an assumption:

1) Start with an idea, statement, or concept.

2) Add a heaping amount of uncertainty.

3) Stir in your prior beliefs, cognitive biases, time constraints, and irrational emotions.

4) Bake for 5 seconds.

Voila - you’ve made an assumption! And you may not have even known you were doing it.

The dictionary definition of assumption is "something we accept as true or certain to happen without proof or evidence."

We make assumptions, often subconsciously, to speed up decision making. It is useful in getting decisions made, but only if you recognize that its accuracy is on a scale of probability - not a certainty.

An assumption is both a heuristic (subconscious shortcut) and a magic trick our mind plays on us, getting us to act quickly with more certainty than is warranted. An assumption is necessary when we need to decide or act quickly with incomplete information.

It becomes a problem when we fail to recognize the inherent uncertainty - the probability that the assumption is incorrect. Worse yet is when we don’t realize we are even making an assumption!

Problem solving is especially susceptible to the effects of assumptions. For example, you may define a sales problem as, “We need to figure out how to market our product better.” But that assumes subpar marketing is the issue. Maybe sales are down because of product issues or competition changes.

Assumptions also creep into the information gathering step of problem solving. When assessing what we need to know to solve the problem, we often think we know what we don’t know for certain.

A business may have an issue with staff turnover and needs to know why employees leave. The manager may instinctively assume they leave for a higher salary elsewhere because one person left recently and gave that as the reason. The manager thinks he knows why people leave, but without looking at all the data he may be making a flawed assumption.

The key to recognizing and dealing with assumptions is to avoid the urge to rush through decision making and problem solving. Slow down and ask questions about everything you believe about the situation. Here are some techniques and questions to ask:

- Write down what you know about the problem. Then for each piece of information, ask, “How do I know this? Is the source reliable? Is the information complete?”

- Think in terms of probabilities. When considering something you think is true, ask “How much certainty do I have about this?” Assign a probability (70% chance this is true) but plan how you would adjust or change if the assumption is wrong.

- When recognizing you are making an assumption, ask, “What information do I need to know that would give me certainty? Is that information available within my time or other constraints?”

Author Don Miguel Ruiz often addressed assumptions in his writings, and I will close with this excerpt from his book, The Four Agreements:

“Don't Make Assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.”

Think well - live well.

- Steve Haffner, speaker and mind performance strategist

Want to learn more about improving your decision making performance?

Click here for my free book, 7 Strategies for Making Better Decisions
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