🌀 How Innovative Leaders Challenge Their Assumptions

🌀 How Innovative Leaders Challenge Their Assumptions

🌀 How Innovative Leaders Challenge Their Assumptions

🌀 How Innovative Leaders Challenge Their Assumptions

🌀 How Innovative Leaders Challenge Their Assumptions

How Innovative Leaders Challenge Their Assumptions

How Innovative Leaders Challenge Their Assumptions


When was the last time you assumed something? When was the last time you assumed something and it turned out it was not like you thought it would be? Innovative leaders are the ones who challenge their assumptions because they know that accepting assumptions as fact can be harmful to their business and employees.

If you want to be an innovative leader, you must learn how to stop making assumptions. Otherwise, you risk destroying your credibility.

Problems arise when someone responds to a situation in the absence of sufficient knowledge — particularly when emotions are heightened. When you assume, you impart your own perspective, motivations and values upon a situation. Through that lens, if you’re not careful, you can distort your perception of reality, which can lead to irrational decisions.

When leaders let their assumptions take the place of facts, they cut themselves off from their people, which can drive engagement downward.

For the main part, the vacuum left by the absence of effective leadership is filled with an increasing number of assumptions which can be highly dangerous for the wellbeing of an organization and for the people inside the company. The difference between a strong leader and an inept one is their ability to recognize their relative ignorance and become more informed before making a decision.

The business obituaries are littered with examples of companies that did not challenge their assumptions.

For example, Nokia shot down a full-screen phone concept years before the iPhone was released, thinking it would be too much of a disruption to bring to market. Thus, challenging assumptions unlocks the creativity needed for innovative solutions.

Inaccurate assumptions are typically unintentional blind spots, but hopefully they can be cured.

So, how do you challenge assumptions? Are there specific techniques that can help you unlock your creativity and come up with a radical new solution that dramatically improves upon the old one? Here are 5 ways to challenge your assumptions and become an innovative leader.

Tip #1 - Bring People In

How Innovative Leaders Challenge Their Assumptions - Bring People In

We can fall into a pattern of operating within the same set of assumptions over and over because we continually see things with the same perspective. Break the stasis and bring in fresh viewpoints. Bring outsiders into a brainstorming session.

Bring back people who were part of better, winning days and talk to them about what drove success at that time.

To build a culture of challenging assumptions, you must make it a regular practice to get people who would typically fall outside the decision-making process involved in that process. A tactic you can use is to say, “I want to challenge that assumption” when you feel like someone is making an assumption. Employees may not always feel comfortable or confident speaking up in this way, which is why it is your role as a leader to demonstrate the behavior yourself. This signals to them that challenging others’ assumptions is not only allowed, but encouraged.

Challenging colleagues to voice their concerns about upcoming decisions and changes offers a depth of review.

This is critical because the more input you gather before, during and after a new implementation, the more ownership people will feel for the end product. And a greater sense of ownership means workers are more likely to get on board with a decision that has been made, and do what it takes to make it work.

Change is a constant in everyone’s life today. It is how we adapt to change that determine the results.

The first step is to empathize with your team and have an individual and tailored conversation with each individual to understand their perspective. By taking this approach, leaders can gain a greater understanding of how each team member sees their role and how to best utilize that individual’s skills, thereby allowing each team member to take ownership of the change.

Leadership is not about telling people what to do. In reality, leadership involves asking questions and engaging in dialogue much more than it should involve barking orders.

Similar to building a wider diversity policy, it is important to get outside perspectives from those not involved in the decision and to build a culture of challenging arguments or assumptions. Too often, there are viewpoints that aren’t considered — when often it’s exactly these that could be critical to business success.

Tip #2 - Question Your Questions

How Innovative Leaders Challenge Their Assumptions - Question Your Questions

A lot of times, we have trouble admitting that we assumed certain things. We tend to stick to our interpretation as an objective truth. Questioning gives space for other possibilities and gives you power to challenge your assumptions. A step by step reasoning process helps you remain objective when working or challenging your assumptions.

Instead of drawing conclusions and making your decisions based on what you think you know, ask questions to challenge your thinking to get more clarity.

Analyse your reasoning by asking yourself WHAT you are thinking and WHY. Why have i chosen this course of action? What belief lead to this action? Are there other actions I should have considered? What am I assuming, and why? Are my assumptions valid? What are the facts that I should be using? Are there other facts I should consider?

You will want to ask why the assumption exists. Uncover the reasoning behind them the assumption and examine that.

Can the underlying reason be used to create a more accurate assumption? For instance, if the reason I assume red cars get more speeding tickets is because red cars get bought by people who like to speed, my assumption switches from the car to the person buying the car.

Assumptions are knee-jerk, autopilot judgments we hold and follow, usually without questioning them.

That said, if you want more than the status quo it is absolutely necessary to challenge these assumptions and create a space that allows the freedom for new thinking, new approaches, and new ideas. Reorganize and reorient your assumptions in the direction of growth, improvement, opportunity and creativity. Do not allow your assumptions to create a fixed view and hold you in a fixed future. Assume in the direction of limitless possibility and let that unfold!

Questioning your own assumptions can be a very powerful tool to solve problems and to come up with new ideas.

Struggle, disappointment, hurt, and uncomfortable feelings like guilt and shame are part of life’s journey. Asking instead of assuming gets to the real heart of a matter and encourages healthier relationships. Your assumptions can influence your behaviors in a big way and so ultimately influence your future. It is always necessary in any given circumstance to ask the question “why?” before doing or not doing anything.

Tip #3 - Keep Yourself In Check

How Innovative Leaders Challenge Their Assumptions - Keep Yourself In Check

Assumptions sabotage effective communication and have the potential to lead everyone down unintended paths. For instance, you may assume that because people are nodding while you speak, they understand and agree with what you are saying. Similarly, if you invite questions about your message and get none, it would be easy to assume there are none.

Do not assume that others know what is on your mind, know your tendencies or understand what your goals and expectations are.

Trust others and be sure to encourage teamwork by clarifying your goals, expectations and their roles in achieving a task. Appreciate others’ contributions and communicate to avoid negativity. If you aren’t sure what someone’s intentions are, ask them. Develop a mindset of seeing people’s good intentions instead of always thinking that they are out to get you. Most of them may have different goals but they usually come from good intentions.

Think of your perception of reality like prescription glasses. They are lenses through which you see the world clearly.

Chances are, that prescription is unique to you and won’t work for other people. How they see the world is distinct, requiring a different prescription to correct their vision. When you approach a situation, remind yourself that your perspective is unique. Because it’s unique, it’s just one of many diverse points of view. Talk to those involved in the situation you’re addressing, and truly listen to their answers. Absorb their knowledge, and let it challenge your preconceived notions.

Self-awareness is our ability to observe and accurately identify our thoughts, feelings and impulses, and determine whether they are grounded in reality or not.

Pay attention to when you are making assumptions and start to recognize that they are assumptions. Be mindful of moments where you feel yourself getting angry or feeling hurt by comment that someone makes towards you. Being mindful and drawing your attention to the present to your thoughts can train you to catch more of your assumptions. Being mindful opens other possibilities and makes you unstuck from assumptions.

Assumptions are lightning-fast. And most of the time, stem from the unconscious.

The antidote to fast assumptions is a mindful brain. Learning to incorporate mindfulness into your days can help you discern an assumption and catch them faster. If there’s one thing you can assume, it’s that you don’t have the full picture! Suppose you don’t understand the whole story. Remember, the objective isn’t to be right or justified; it’s to gain a deeper understanding and awareness.

Tip #4 - Hypothesize Without Your Assumptions

How Innovative Leaders Challenge Their Assumptions - Hypothesize Without Your Assumptions

Do a thought experiment on what would happen if the assumption didn’t exist. How would that change your actions and the actions of those around you? What other assumptions wouldn’t make sense because they depend on the assumption you’re removing? Even if the assumption is valid, assuming it’s not highlights dependencies between assumptions.

Then, do another thought experiment, but instead of eliminating the assumption, narrow, broaden or change a parameter of the assumption. 

What consequences does this have? For instance, if my assumption is if I buy a red car I increase my chance of getting a speeding ticket, what happens if I assume buying a blue car increases this chance? Or if I assume that it has to be not just a red car, but a red sports car?

We usually build our assumptions on vast amounts of prior experience, which saves us a lot of time, effort, and anxiety.

But therein lies their danger, and why it’s useful to, well, conduct a durability test for the chair every once in a while. Some of the most insidious assumptions are about cause and effect. That’s why science was such a great invention. Before science, we had lots of explanations of cause and effect that made us feel good, but didn’t actually work. Then we invented science and finally had a way to tell which cause/effect combinations really worked.

Experimentation is all about learning. It is about answering your questions and testing your assumptions. It is about gathering data.

A common mistake is that people take their idea and run with it without testing the assumptions behind the concept. We think we know, but quite often we don’t know, we just assume. Still, we make decisions based on how we think things are, without testing any of our assumptions. We shouldn’t be afraid of experiments as they help us gather necessary information and thus, to become more certain. Experimentation helps us to navigate in the avoidable uncertainty that is part of any innovation process.

By the way, challenging assumptions is a critical thinking activity that also contributes to creative thinking by opening up more creative directions in problem solving.

Assumptions are the hidden and often unconscious ideas, beliefs, and convictions about how things are or should be working. Assumptions are based on dominant practices and forces in society. If you want to get to new viewpoints and perspectives — and that is what innovation is aimed at because the older viewpoints may not be good enough anymore — convictions built upon assumptions can hinder the positive change you are looking for.

Tip #5 - Fly Above Certainty

How Innovative Leaders Challenge Their Assumptions - Fly Above Certainty

If you look at the Fortune 500 companies from 1955 to 2017 – only 60 remain. That means 88% of all companies that were top of the world made the wrong decisions. Challenging the assumptions on which you base your decisions is essential if you are to succeed in an increasingly uncertain and disruptive operating environment.

Leaders often strive to follow their convictions which might just be assumptions.

Waver too often and you’ll find your efforts going in a hundred different directions, to little real benefit. But a sense of direction and a sense of certainty aren’t quite the same thing. In fact, being too certain can poison your leadership and lead to decisions you might wind up regretting. This is the most obvious danger of certainty — that it blinds us to the truth.

For leaders, the feeling of certainty or “rightness” is highly problematic for a number of reasons.

First, as in my example, sometimes we are actually wrong and we do dumb stuff like not double check and then we miss the flight or take a wrong turn. But more importantly, when leaders are sure that they are right (or if they are afraid of being proved wrong), they lose their open-mindedness and curiosity. And in a world of ever-increasing complexity, it is essential that we not close our minds in this way.

Belief. Conviction. Confidence. Certainty. Passion.

All attributes we associate with leadership — largely in a good way. We want — maybe need – leaders who believe in what they say and do. It’s powerful and magnetic. Nonetheless, too much of any of these can lead to closed-mindedness, fixedness, stagnation, lack of creativity and innovation, arrogance and, at the extreme, even dictatorship. It can lead to a loss of power and over reliance on the person with the extreme belief. It can lead to mindless followership, even cults.

Certainty itself is an emotional state, not an intellectual one.

Many people think leadership is easy and fun. However, the more responsibility you assume, the more uncertainty you will be expected to manage. Uncertainty is not the enemy but is the opportunity. The leader’s responsibility is to bring clarity in the midst of paradox and ambiguity.

Wrapping Up

How Innovative Leaders Challenge Their Assumptions Final Thoughts
We all make basic assumptions about things in life, but sometimes those assumptions are wrong. We must never trust in what we assume, only in what we know.Darren Shan

The assumptions that we can’t easily see require us to be much more thoughtful and to question where they came from so that we are aware of them.  If you can make yourself and your team more aware of the fact that they are making assumptions every day that impact their ability to operate effectively and that they don’t realize they are even making those assumptions it can have a profound impact on creativity and productivity.

The tricky thing about assumptions is that people do not always know when they are relying on them.

Our brains create them as shortcuts designed to eliminate excess mental processing. The problem is that once they have been established in one’s mind, they tend to be enshrined there, never to be questioned again.

What you think more about, you create more of it. So if you dwell on your assumptions, your outer action will reflect them.

As a leader, when you seek to listen, instead of making assumptions, people begin to implicitly trust your actions and intentions. You’re demonstrating that you care and that you have their and the company’s best interests at heart.

Rather than letting our assumptions take the control, bringing all stakeholders into a decision and listening carefully to their input can help lead to better decision-making overall.

One lesson that has stayed with me throughout my career is that there are buried landmines of assumptions in every decision, and the more people that look at their decisions, the greater their chance of finding these landmines before its too late.

Leaders need to realize that while it is easier to simply hold on to their assumptions, eventually that course of action can prove disastrous.

Do you tend to make assumptions about others? Are your conclusions based on facts or assumptions? Does your opinions about a person or situation influence your conclusions? Have you ever had the experience of being in communication with someone who assumed you wrongly? I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments below!

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