A Word About Assumptions: Part One

A Word About Assumptions: Part OneReality is basically a series of assumptions we make about the world around us. Most of those assumptions are sensible. We assume the sun will rise in the morning – unless, of course we are astronomically minded, in which case we assume the Earth will continue to rotate at its usual speed so that the sun appears to rise in the morning. Scientifically minded or not, we assume there will be no radical changes in the laws of gravity during the day. And so on.

Most assumptions are safe. Indeed, if you were to question every assumption all day long, you’d soon go mad. However, some assumptions are not reliable, either because they are based on misunderstandings or because the bases of those assumptions have changed. For instance, for hundreds of years it was assumed that our body was filled with four humours and if they remained in balance, you remained healthy. If they got out of balance, you got ill. Medical treatments, such as bleeding sick people, were based on these assumptions and, as a result, often killed patients faster than diseases left alone would have done; particularly as there was no understanding of the importance of hygiene, sterilising medical tools and the like.

Dangerous Assumptions

Assumptions are particularly pervasive in organisations such as businesses, government bodies and non-profits. In many cases, assumptions which held true when a business – or even an entire sector – was founded, become untrue over time. For instance, in the early 1900s, it was assumed that the main form of personal transportation for the middle and lower classes involved horses. Sure, cars existed, but they were expensive playthings for the wealthy and out of reach to everyone else – until Henry Ford launched his inexpensive, reliable and easy-to-maintain Model T. Within a few years, the car became the default form of personal land transportation for the middle classes and horse related businesses – built on the assumption people would always uses horses to get around – went bankrupt by the thousand.

More recently, the film industry assumed that when people would always want high quality prints of their photographs. When the first digital cameras came out, they produced poor quality images that looked atrocious if printed at any reasonable size. Secure in their assumptions, the film industry ignored digital imagery even as image quality improved. And in a sense, the film industry is correct, even today a good quality film camera can produce a better quality photographic print than can a digital camera. The problem is, people today seldom actually print images. Rather they look at them in their computers and share them on various social networks. The fundamental assumption of the film industry became wrong and because the industry clung to it, once huge businesses such as Kodak and Polaroid went bankrupt.

What Are Your Assumptions?

Do you see where I am going here? Of course you do! The assumptions you make in your organisation may seem safe today, but could become invalid in no time. For this reason it is critical that you make a list of all the assumptions you make about your product, your sector, your customers and your business model.

This sounds easy, but it is not. When I ask participants of my cosmic creativity workshops to do this, they find it extremely difficult to identify their deepest, most ingrained assumptions. For example, I asked a director of logistics (mostly involving trucking) this question and he listed some very trivial assumptions, such as that their trucks would be in good repair. I suggested, “you are assuming that you will always be able to get diesel fuel for your trucks., but what if that becomes unavailable? You are assuming that there will be a consistent need for trucking in your continent, but what if 3D printing becomes so commonplace that people print products rather than buy them?”

I would like to say that he was astounded and thanked me for my deep insight. Instead, he was polite and acknowledged my observation. But I believe he thought I was crazy – those assumptions were far too ingrained for him to question them. And, perhaps, the answers to those questions could be frightening than he wanted to think about, especially in a rather entertaining workshop.

But, as the horse industry learned in the dawn of the 20th century and the film industry learned in the dawn of the present century, deeply held assumptions change. Worse, the rapid pace of technology and the ease with which upstarts can launch new businesses means that the bases of many assumptions are changing with disturbing regularity.

List Your Assumptions

This is why you should make a list of your assumptions. This will not be easy and I recommend you ask friends, family and creativity wonks like me to help you list those assumptions.

Think about every aspect of your business, your sector, your customers, your business model; think about everything you do and list the assumptions behind those actions. Don’t forget the most fundamental assumptions. Do this alone, with your team and with outsiders.

Personal Assumptions

While assumptions are most pervasive in the business and political world, they also affect us as individuals. One of the most common assumptions is that we need to earn more money in order to live a better life. A consequence of this assumption is that in families, one or more of the parents ends up working long hours in a stressful workplace in order to maximise income now and promotional possibilities for the future. Those promotions typically result in greater income and greater demands at work.

As a result the hard working parents (more and more often, it is both parents) have little time for their children, their families and the pursuit of the dreams they had as young lovers.

Sadly, it is all to often at the deathbed that the hard workers reflect back on their lives and do not say, “by golly, I wish I had worked harder and longer hours.” No, they typically say, “I wish I had worked less and spent more time with my family.”

Because, the truth is, what your family needs most of all is not the money you earn, but you, your time, your love, your emotional participation and your physical participation.

But many of us make mistaken assumptions about our lives, our partners and our families. It is important therefore to list your own personal assumptions from time to time – and to question those assumptions. Again, ask others to help you with this.

I think you will be surprised by what you learn – and eventually amazed at how much your life can improve once you question those assumptions and change behaviours based on flawed assumptions.

Not Always Bad News

So far, I have focused on the consequences of assumptions. But there are also happy-ending stories. For instance, Arm and Hammer has sold baking soda for more than 100 years. For most of that time, they assumed customers used baking soda for baking. But baking soda for baking is a limited market. On the other hand, sodium bicarbonate (which is what baking soda actually is) has all kinds of terrific properties, such as absorbing odours, cleaning and even extinguishing fires. By making use of these properties, the company was able to launch a wide range of new sodium bicarbonate products which enabled them to expand the business manifold over the years.


When you meditate over your transcendental situation, think also about the assumptions you are making in your organisation or your life. Might some of those assumptions apply to your situation? If so, visualise what would happen to the situation of the relevant assumptions were wrong. This can be powerfully inspiring.

What do you think?

I value your insights, thoughts, questions and criticisms!

image credit: question image from bigstock


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  • Jeffrey BaumgartnerJeffrey Baumgartner writes and speaks on creativity, innovation and – especially – anticonventional thinking (ACT), globally. This article was reprinted with permission from his creativity archives.

    Jeffrey Baumgartner




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