Assumptions and Other Deadly Sins

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There’s a story about a young and enterprising new teacher who had heard stories of the long hours the head of his department was said to keep. Not one to wholeheartedly believe the lore surrounding Dr. Joseph, the young teacher took it upon himself to find out what time this legend actually arrived in the morning. Every day for two weeks the young teacher came in progressively 15 minutes earlier until he was arriving a full two and a half hours before school began. Nonetheless, every time he drove into the teachers parking area, the head’s car was already there. He was both amazed and perplexed. He told another teacher about his experience and his wonderment about what time Dr. Joseph actually arrived at school. The teacher recommended that the next day the young teacher feel the hood of the department head’s car when he saw it. Much to his surprise the hood was cold.  The young teacher was now even more mystified.  Later that day the young teacher sought out his adviser and told him what he had found. The teacher looked at the young teacher and calmly said, “Dr. Joseph lives a few blocks away. He walks to school. His car hasn’t moved from that spot in two years.”

It’s the things we assume that limit and shape what we can see, think, feel and do. We live amidst a matrix of assumptions and a network of beliefs about what is true, a system of assumptions that colors and influences everything , giving us a web of interpretations about ourselves, the people in our lives and every situation we face – every one.

We may think that the story above is an anomaly. We may ASSUME that this experience was unique. That would be natural since we, as humans, like to believe about ourselves that we approach the world in a fresh, open way, ready to embrace what new experiences come our way.  I would suggest that far more often than not we are prisoners of our fixed beliefs about everything we encounter, allowing very little new experience or fresh perspective. We are creatures of habit, as the expression goes, not just habits of behavior, but habits of thought, feeling and perception.

The rules are not all of our own making. We inherit a comprehensive set of beliefs of how to behave, what is good, what is bad, what we are like, who we are like, what is possible for us, what is impossible for us. And we lock in to a set of them and live inside them as if they were real.

Years ago, I worked in a hospital as a psychologist. I ate breakfast in the cafeteria every morning. One morning, after ordering my breakfast, the short-order cook who I know fairly well, said in a slightly annoyed tone, “You know, you drive me crazy!”. Quite surprised, I asked him why. He said, “Because just when I think I know what you’re going to order you change it. I said, “You mean people get the same thing every morning”. Now it was his turn to be surprised. He pointed to the door and said, “You see that guy walking through the door now? I know exactly what he wants. As soon as he walks through the door I can start his order. How do I know? Because he’s been getting the same things for over 10 years”.

How many years have I been thinking of the people in my life in the same way every time I see them, every time they open their mouth, every time they walk through the door. Locked in, a prisoner of what I assume to be true.

What do you assume to be true about your business? About your manager?  Your co-workers? Your customers and suppliers? Your career? What do you “know” to be true as certainly as Europeans in 1491 “knew” the world was flat. What is possible if you could see that what you unquestionably believe to be true about yourself and the people and situations in your life was merely interpretations, not facts? What possibilities could you discover by challenging the limits of the known in favor of what is possible?

I was coaching breakthrough teams in a consumer package good company some years ago. We were pushing the limits of how fast a product could go from concept to shelf. The team was struggling to make substantive changes that could significantly accelerate the timeline. Each step was laid out in sequence and each one could be compressed only so much. We were stuck. Then, out of the blue, someone suggested that the very linear model we were using – one after another, one following another – may be an assumption. They asked if it would be possible to do things in some form of parallel processing. Could we be doing a number of steps simultaneously, rather than sequentially? That notion, radical as it was at the time, opened up whole new ways to accelerate the process. No one had challenged the linear, one-step-after-another assumption. In challenging it, the team saw possibilities for a style of working where they were sharing what each of them was learning from their parts of the world real time, as they were learning, so everyone was growing together, and moving as one. It turned out to be a much more satisfying and enormously productive model.

What are your assumptions, the ones you inherited or formulated, and now hold as true?

I often conduct a team exercise where the team members take turns sharing what they “know” about the functions represented on the team. We start with consultants. What do we know about consultant? Well, they’re expensive, they ask a lot of questions and then tell you what you already know, they don’t like to work so they are always telling other people how to do it, and on and on. We go around asking what we know about people from Finance, people from R&D, people from Marketing, Sales, HR, Legal, each one in turn getting an opportunity to hear what others think (aka know) about them as representatives of their function. Finance people are boring, “bean counters” and always say no. People from Sales always overinflate their numbers. R&D people “live in another world than the rest of us”. And on and on. All assumptions – not without some experience behind them – but assumptions about what John or Joe, Beth or Barbara are going to be. We put people in boxes and then relate to them as their boxes, not as who they are. And create defensiveness and shallow decision-making when people can’t fully express themselves and be heard because others already “know” what they are going to say.

This is a fun exercise and what is interesting is how much more room there is, more freedom, when we have gone through this exercise. It loosens the hold the assumptions, prejudices and beliefs have on the people there.


What are your assumptions and beliefs? What “unquestioned truths” are constraining your thinking and your actions? Challenge yourself to see those things you “know” to be true rather as assumptions and beliefs as opposed to facts. With that simple shift you will be able to go beyond those limiting beliefs and feel the freedom and power you can access from this. New thinking, true innovation is possible only when you can challenge every aspect of how you see and relate to the world and everything in it. Only then can you discover anything new.

Often organizations feel that they need “new blood”, “fresh eyes” to see now possibilities. People are brought in from “the outside” to offer those perspectives. And, sadly, more often than not, unless an organization has readied themselves for these new perspectives and views on what s and what’s possible, these people are “tissue rejected” by the very organization looking for their new thinking. Their unique views do not fit in with the prevailing views of what is or can be. Their ideas  and contributions are minimized. Ultimately they themselves will either be marginalized or they will conform.

Honestly, how ready are you to hear things dramatically different from what you “know” to be true? How willing are you to experiment with new and “different” ways of thinking and doing things. How radical can you be in challenging your version of reality in favor of one that may be outside your comfort zone? Can you create an organization that is truly open to diverse opinions and perspectives? Diversity, after all, is not simply a matter of race and gender balance. It is more fundamentally a matter of valuing each unique perspective, inviting those on the fringes into the middle, giving them each a voice and a respectful listening and allowing them to influence the direction of a team, department, division or organization.  How new are you willing the world, and all those in it, to be?