The Voice for Insightful Leadership with Shelley Row, P.E.

There were thirteen of us and an unknown number of them. We, leaders of a technology company, were standing in a dark field surrounded by the rugged mountains of Sedona. We held night vision goggles and laser pointers that reached ten miles. They were the inhabitants of the UFOs for which we were searching. Yes, we were on a UFO-watching tour. Never did I or any of us expect to be searching for UFOs. It definitely challenged our assumptions.

You may not have UFOs in your office, but insightful leaders know the importance of challenging assumptions. First, let’s do a reality check.  You must make assumptions. Assumptions are your brain’s shortcuts that help it manage the number of decisions you make in a day. However, you must also recognize when assumptions constrict your choices and constrain innovation.

In my experience, most people are unaware of their assumptions and the limitations assumptions create. Foster awareness by shining a light on assumptions. When people realize they made an assumption it either 1) opens their eyes to new opportunities or 2) allows the assumption to be revisited and updated. Either way, innovation is facilitated.

As an insightful leader train yourself to listen for assumptions. They may be the culprit during an impasse or a roadblock. Here are a few assumptions that get in the way of progress.

Assume the future is like the past. In rapidly changing environments, assumptions about markets, people, customers, and partners may no longer be valid. For example, in my field of transportation, we often assume that everyone wants to drive their personal car, but trends show fewer driver’s licenses and more use of other transportation options. What is changing in your industry that requires you to challenge long-held assumptions?

Assume that resources are finite. In my early days as a manager at the U.S. Department of Transportation, we executed work with only our staff.  The staff asserted that the update to a key manual would take years. “What assumptions go into that estimate?” we asked. They assumed that the work was done only with the current staff.  Once we surfaced the assumption we opened new avenues for execution (and hired consultant support).  What assumptions are your staff making that limit their options for execution?

Assume that past decisions are still relevant. We cling to old decisions sometimes to our detriment. I work with a leader who is reluctant to share information with staff. When a new leader took over, that reluctance continued until the assumption was challenged. With new leadership, say, “It sounds like that previous decision is limiting our options and we assume that it can’t be changed. What would it take to reevaluate the original decision?”

Assume that it can’t be done or it’s too hard. As a leader in government, I was often told that it was too hard to fire underperforming staff. But when we examined that assumption we learned that, while not easy, it was certainly doable. What does your staff believe is too hard and what assumptions are in play?

Assume that past impressions are relevant today. “We know what our client wants.” Are you sure? Clients, bosses, and boards change and with that change comes new attitudes.  Ask, “Let’s examine the assumptions. When was the last time we studied client preferences?” Or, “We have a new board now, let’s not assume that they have the same goals as the previous board.”

None of us expected to be searching for UFOs but there we stood, scanning the night sky looking for something none of us believed in. We were forced to confront our assumptions particularly when we saw UFOs! We traced the UFOs with our lasers as they zig-zagged across the night sky. We pointed excitedly at bright white lights on inaccessible mountain tops that appeared, brightened and dimmed, disappeared and reappeared.  We have no explanation, nor do we have our previous assumptions.

What assumptions hold you back?

Copyright: realillusion / 123RF Stock Photo
 

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