Tag Archives: Assumptions

Problem-Solving Success Tip: Test Your Assumptions About Everything

Test your assumptions about everything.


Assumptions have a way of creeping into all parts of a problem-solving project. They’re often wrong, which can lead to a lot of wasted effort and even cause a problem-solving project to fail entirely. It’s very easy to take a strongly stated assertion as true, especially if it’s the boss who makes it. Remind everyone involved to be skeptical and on the watch for untested assumptions.


Problem definition.


Check the facts first to be sure that you and your team understand the problem the same way, and that you have data to confirm that the problem is important. Testing assumptions about the problem definition could include interviewing participants, collecting measurements, creating flow charts of what really happened, etc.


Organizing your project.


Don’t assume that the resources you need to solve the problem will automatically be available to you. Solving a messy problem is a project. Treat it that way by developing a project plan, obtaining sponsorship, getting commitment to participate from key players, etc.


Root Cause Analysis.


This is a favorite spot for untested assumptions to show up, especially if you use a root cause analysis method based on brainstorming. Once you’ve got a list of possible causes, be sure to collect data, devise tests or do whatever you have to verify which causes are real.


Choosing solutions.


Test assumptions about proposed solutions by answering the questions: “How likely is the approach to eliminate a root cause of this problem” and “How practical is this approach (do I have the resources to actually do it and can I achieve the solution in an appropriate amount of time)?”


Testing assumptions throughout the problem-solving process will greatly improve your chances of solving the right problem successfully.


There is nothing so deceptive as an apparent truth.— Russell Ackoff


copyright 2006. Jeanne Sawyer. All Rights Reserved.

Jeanne Sawyer is an author, consultant, trainer and coach who helps her clients solve expensive, chronic problems, such as those that cause operational disruptions and cause customers to take their business elsewhere. These tips are excerpted from her book, When Stuff Happens: A Practical Guide to Solving Problems Permanently. Find out about it, and get more free information on problem solving at her web site: http://www.sawyerpartnership.com/.

Problem Solving 101 – Challenge Assumptions

Creative problem solving is about finding the solutions that might normally get missed. Why are they overlooked? Often it is because we are trapped into a certain approach by the assumptions we are making. When we challenge these “hidden” assumptions, we find that there are many creative solutions that never occurred to us before.

An example will help here, but first a question: Have you ever been in Los Angeles traffic? I have been in bumper-to-bumper traffic, trying to get to the airport at 10:30 at night. If you have had a similar experience, you can understand the following problem.

Joe had an audition for a movie role at eight the next morning in Hollywood, and he lived on the other side of the city. The news of the audition came late, and now – at one in the morning – it occurred to him that he had a problem. It could take as much as four hours to get through the morning traffic, plus he needed some time to shower and get ready. This meant getting up by a little after three that morning.

Two hours of sleep, followed by hours on the freeway. It seemed that this might affect his performance, and this would be his first important role if he got it. His mind started scrambling for solutions. Would taking the bus be faster than driving his van? But he didn’t know the bus schedules, and it was too late to learn. He took out a map of the city and started looking for a better way. There might have been one, but it seemed dangerous to guess about routes he wasn’t familiar with.

Then he remembered the creative problem solving techniques his friend Steve had told him about. He decided to quickly do the assumption-challenging exercise. He took out a pen and piece of paper and wrote: “I need to drive there,” and “I have to take the freeways.” Quickly challenging each of these, he had a few ideas, but nothing that seemed to help much.

Then, when he wrote down the assumption, “I need to leave early in the morning,” and “I have to deal with heavy traffic.” Upon asking if these two assumptions were true, the idea hit him. What if he didn’t have to deal with heavy traffic? What if he didn’t leave early in the morning, but now?

Quickly he showered, prepared himself, and drove to the audition, arriving by 2:30 a.m. because the traffic was always lighter in the middle of the night. He parked his van in a dark corner of the parking lot, crawled into the back, and set his watch-alarm for 7:40 a.m. He got five hours of sleep instead of two, and freshened up in the bathroom just before the audition.

The Problem Solving Technique

The essence of this technique, as you can see in the story, is to identify all the assumptions that are already being made, and ask if they have to be true. Making a list on paper is a good idea. Otherwise you’ll tend to forget some of them. List them, and challenge them, looking for alternative approaches – that’s about it.

Suppose you start by writing down a problem like “Generating more income with our business.” The immediate and obvious assumption is in the formulation of the problem itself. Do you really want more income, or just more profits? After all, some companies have millions in income with no profits.

Having challenged the idea, you now can ask the obvious questions, like, “If we don’t increase income, how would we increase profits?” This might lead to many ideas on ways to reduce your expenses, or to pay less in taxes. Now, lets say you were assuming that the business needed more income – or profits. You challenge this and realize that you actually want more for yourself. This might lead to the idea of borrowing money to buy out a partner, resulting in more of the existing profits going to you.

This kind of problem solving is so powerful and creative because it gets you “out of the box.” The box is the usual way of looking at things. Challenge assumptions, though, and you get a look beyond the normal. You often get to a deeper or more fundamental problem, as when a man who thinks he needs a better apartment to rent challenges the idea and ends up investing in a new home. This is a problem solving technique for real life.

Copyright Steve Gillman. To get your Free Creative Problem Solving Course, and other free gifts, visit: http://www.problemsolving101.com.