The Danger of Assumptions

An assumption is something we take for granted or accept as true without proof.  Assumptions are a necessary and important part of life – without them we would waste a tremendous amount of time verifying every detail of life’s operations. Assumptions make daily living more practical in matters ranging from interacting with our family to driving a car and doing complex projects at work.

But assumptions can be dangerous – they can limit our options and creativity, even our growth and development.  My focus here, however, is when assumptions lead us to errors in our actions and judgement with negative consequences.  I’ll give an example.

Early on at SugarSync we identified the need to improve many of our written documents – marketing, support articles, product documentation etc.  We were still small and only had  budget for a part time contractor.  One of our team members knew of such a person from a prior technical company where she also was a part-time contractor.  She is a mother with young children, her husband traveled quite a bit for work and at the time she wanted a part-time flexible arrangement.  This was a great mutual fit and she joined our team in this capacity.  She was highly competent and well liked by her colleagues.  As SugarSync grew we realized that we really needed full-time efforts on this function.  It didn’t occur to us that she would be interested in such a role so we started recruiting.  A couple of months later (we hadn’t hired the full-time person, in part because they didn’t measure up) our contractor gave notice that she had a full-time offer.  How could this be?  She assumed that we must not have liked her very much if we didn’t offer her the position.  We assumed that she was not interested in full-time work or would have spoken up when the workload increased or when we posted the position.  Fortunately this situation had a happy ending and she joined SugarSync full-time but it was an unnecessarily close call with a lot of avoidable heartache and time spent by both sides on recruiting.

This was a reminder to all involved about the need for extra communication and especially about the need to validate assumptions.  These types of assumptions about an individual’s career goals are particularly risky and can be incorrectly influence by gender.  Assumptions that were once valid can become erroneous in even short periods of time.  People change, their situations change.  Marketplaces and business, especially in technology, are extremely dynamic making assumptions particularly risky.

I believe that consciousness of our assumptions is one of the key foundations of critical thinking skills.  Engaging in a Socratic thought process of “what are we assuming” “how did we choose those assumptions” and “what could we assume instead” can raise this consciousness and open up creative avenues for solving existing problems with new ideas.

Assumptions are at the heart of bias and stereotypes and recognizing and questioning our assumptions is the key to change.  I believe the overwhelming evidence that diverse teams create better results is founded on the higher likelihood of those teams to overcome false assumptions and biases.  Successful leaders foster an environment that challenges assumptions and associated limits.  Innovative companies by definition have successfully challenged widely-held assumptions.  That’s why my favorite saying on the topic is this one by Ken Olson “The best assumption to have is that any commonly held belief is wrong”

I’d love to hear any examples you want to share of interesting or important false assumptions!