Communication

Face Assumptions Directly

Photo by Debbie R under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

Assumptions suck. They really, really suck.

I was 10 years old or so when a teacher said to me for the first time, “Assumption make an ass out of you and me.”

Many years later, I can go back to that moment in my mind and think, She was absolutely correct. It’s a silly little play on the spelling of the word assume (ass-u-me), but it’s perfect.

Assumptions are uninformed conclusions, or misguided realties. They are bad because they waste time and energy. And they can result in offending someone, losing money or productivity, or maybe even something more important.

It’s best if you admit when you are making assumptions, recognize an assumption before you act on it, and (most importantly) avoid assumptions when you can.

Let’s look at a few scenarios and try to turn what started as an assumption into a (mostly) positive experience.

01: Johnny Doesn’t Work Hard

I think we all hear the first one a lot. Someone in one position believes someone in another position doesn’t work hard enough.

First of all, what is working hard in the first place? Some people think this means working more hours. Others think it means always being available. And still others think it means the percentage of time Facebook isn’t pulled up on your screen.

Those are all stupid definitions. None of them having anything to do with working hard or not working hard. In fact, I really dislike the phrase working hard. Yes, people put in different amounts of effort to performing a task.

Step back a moment. Do you really care how someone looks while they are solving a problem? Or, do you care more about the solution?

If you said the former, you’re taking the wrong approach to a problem. And if you’re in an industry or office environment where perception is a reality, I’m very sorry for you. An uninformed perception is a misguided reality, or an assumption, and you need to mitigate your assumptions.

So, in this case, instead of continuing to believe Johnny doesn’t work hard (which really doesn’t mean anything by itself), give Johnny some goals, and give him a timeframe to complete those goals. Then evaluate the quality of his work against those goals. And make your evaluation as objective as possible (more did it meet the requirements, and less do I like it).

02: People Will Love This Idea!

You’re a talented human. You have ideas all the time. You’re not special in that way. And most of your ideas aren’t special. What matters is how you execute those ideas.

When you get a new idea, you start to think about all the possibilities. And you think about everyone doing exactly what you want, and you think about becoming a millionaire overnight. None of those things are real.

Don’t assume someone is going to like something. Give them something to try. And try it very simply to get some feedback. If you’re moving in the right direction, keep going. Otherwise, change what you’re doing (which doesn’t necessarily mean throwing your product away).

This is the basis for the concept called a minimum viable product. Eric Ries faces this dilemma head-on in his book, The Lean Startup, which is one of the best books I’ve read.

03: An Unknown Project Requirement

When you begin a new project, there are always things you don’t know, right? Many times you’re asked to estimate your time when you don’t know what’s involved in a project.

Situations like this are unavoidable. They will always happen. You have to go into a project with some assumptions, or you will never actually start working.

To face those assumptions directly, write them down before you begin the project. Be specific. What are you assuming? What are your possible outcomes?

And, what’s even more important is that you review those assumptions after the project is completed. I highly recommend you use the five-whys exercise during your post-mortem meetings. And, come out of it with actionable to-dos that are tied to accountability.

Wrapping It Up

I could go on and on and on with examples, but I think you get the point. I used more working-world examples here, but you can apply this to your home life, too.

The general idea is that you attempt to lessen or remove assumptions when you can. And when you can’t get rid of assumptions, be up-front and honest and recognize what those assumptions are before you actually act on them. And eventually revisit your assumptions after your actions, and use the outcomes to lessen future assumptions.

If you liked what you read, please help me out by