How To Innovate By Challenging Assumptions

Innovation begins when we challenge our assumptions.

Here I will explain what I mean by challenging assumptions, and how each one of us can change and innovate by taking issue with assumptions.

Real-Life Example

Each programming language has it’s prevalent case studies, or “Do And Do Not”s. When I worked on one of my first products, I came up with an efficient way to develop almost all the features. My ingenious idea could significantly save us developing time, resources like CPU and memory, and of course — money.

But my notion came against the “Do and Don’t”s our developing environment had.

I tried a lot to convince my strict bosses to go the other way. I collected data, built coalitions of influential co-workers, and we all tried to debunk the idea that these guidelines are the only way to develop our product. After a few months, I wrote an alternative “Do and Don’t”s article that has been released to all the engineering teams in our project.

Guidelines, fundamental ideas, or even rules are often made by old assumptions that we need to shake up. This is not easy, but this is the core idea of innovation.

Different Types Of Assumptions

It’s so easy to confuse assumptions and hypotheses with tangible facts. Assumptions are just points of view of a particular problem. I think we have at least three types of assumptions: “It Works like this”, knowledge supplant, and our first idea.

The most classical one is “It Works Like This”.

Organizationally, these are the strict rules, ways of action that no one can change. No one knows who the idiot is that wrote them.

Personally, these are our self-assumptions: strengths, weaknesses, and how we know ourselves.

Some assumptions came as knowledge supplant, they substitute data we don’t have. For example, we all make assumptions about our audience- their desires and problems we will try to solve for them. These assumptions are so risky because sometimes nobody tries to confirm them. They stay with us almost as known facts. Market analysis, MVP, and using of data helps us to restrict these assumptions, and exchange them for pure knowledge.

The most interesting aspect of assumptions is precisely our first idea to solve a problem. We think about just one idea and try to develop, enhance, and improve it more and more. After a feverish brainstorming session, we become captive to our conceptual fixation. We get stuck with a dull idea and do not try to rethink it in another way.

OK, so I assume we have become familiar with the assumptions’ types, but I want to emphasize why we need to challenge them. For that I have great reasons.

Face to face podcast, when it was still possible.

WHY Challenging #1 — The World Is Changing

I don’t need to tell you how our magical world can change in a moment. No one could predict the COVID-19 era (except Bill Gates, maybe). This Coronavirus time pushes us to break through glass ceilings, especially in the online transformation of almost all services.

I want to tell you my view. Every podcaster will tell you that a podcast is a social gathering. Before the Coronavirus, just a few insane podcasters did it online, from far away. The sound is not as recording offline, you cannot make this intimate relationship with the interviewee on the Internet cables. So many assumptions, that’s what we all thought, but the Coronavirus came up and changed everything. We all found that we can record a podcast online, with perfect sound quality, and keep the magical moments that happen face-to-face.

This is just an example of how the changes in the world help us to extract ourselves from social codes, break the sense of “impossible”, and act contrary to existing assumptions.

WHY Challenging #2 — We Are Changing

No one knows ourselves like we do. We are so good at making assumptions about ourselves. We can’t make it, we can’t do it, we need to gain more skills and abilities.

We forget our growth, how much we changed from childhood or a few years ago. We never stop learning. As we grow we face new approaches and knowledge. Sometimes we realize that the new knowledge conflicts with our old knowledge or assumptions. Unlearning plays a big role of knowing ourselves again and again while changing.

Every comfort zone breaking also has a shaking of an old assumption. I learned how to grow away from the “I can’t” thinking to make new opportunities. I thought I couldn’t drill in a wall, but I succeeded. I thought I couldn’t deal with a big failure, but I did it. I did it again and again in different ways in recent years, and broke almost every hypothesis I had about myself.

WHY Challenging #3 — They Are Just Wrong

We can’t build a product or a project without making assumptions, but we need to know that some of them will be wrong.

In a book called “The Lean Startup” the writer talks a lot about the role of assumptions in product development. You write a hypothesis, you check your hypothesis in a MVP, and you get new data and knowledge. You don’t need the assumption anymore.

Wrong and unchecked assumptions can be a big danger when we continue developing our product. It can smash all of our work, and force us to start from scratch.

HOW To Do It #1 — Less Exclamations, More Questions

As a product manager I act in the kingdom of maybies.

In each “maybe” situation I try to be the investigator. I don’t accept what my customer told me at face value. I always try to distinguish the real problem I can solve.

I assisted by question asking techniques (like the 5-whys), by data, experiments, surveys, and my team. My mission is to eliminate the uncertainty, establish definite knowledge and leave the quesses and hypotheses behind.

Little MVPs and questions create new knowledge. They are great for precision and careful thought, and even personally — we can learn about ourselves from scratch by asking ourselves guiding questions.

HOW To Do It #2 — Good Brainstorming

This tip is specific to the thought fixation created by the first idea. You probably heard about Brainstorming and use this process for decision making. Lots of people are doing it just in a way that eliminates the number of ideas.

At the first step, try to think about different ideas, and many of them. We will try not to develop a dull idea, we will not reject any of them. We will just focus on the problem and tackle it from different points of view. It is worth listing all the different ideas, to make sure we have a return point. Forget all the walls, assumptions and drawbacks in this step.

Only in the second stage will we try to combine two ideas, develop them or think about how to overcome barriers that inhibit our idea from becoming reality.

It is so easy to carelessly bury some pretty good ideas. We think that our boss will not like it, that this is the worst idea, and this is impossible. Maybe we have a fixation on our assumptions? Maybe we don’t have enough knowledge we need to achieve? Maybe the world is changing?

I deeply advise you to read a great book called “InGenious” by Tina Seelig, that expands on good brainstorming and creative problem solving.

Speedy Closure

Assumption challenging can be our life saver when we are going nowhere.

We will not accept “It Works Like This” anymore — we will check it’s relevance instead.

We will not focus on our first idea — we will brainstorm to get better ones.

We will always try to glean the data we need to make a decision.

These guidelines will help us to react to the changing world and avoid wrong hypotheses.

💡 Product Manager | Lifelong Learner | Blogger And Podcaster 🎙️