How To Challenge Your Assumptions

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Challenging assumptions can unlock the creativity needed for innovative solutions. That was a key theme that emerged at the Leadership Asheville overnight retreat I attended this weekend.

Challenging assumptions can unlock the creativity needed for innovative solutions. That was a key theme that emerged at the Leadership Asheville overnight retreat I attended this weekend.

During the weekend, we were given leadership and team building exercises that involved solving problems collaboratively. Upon solving a problem, we were challenged to solve it faster with fewer resources. In essence, to make a radical leap forward in our thinking of potential solutions and do what initially seemed impossible.

To solve the problems presented to us, we often had to ignore the “phantom rules” we approached problems with and challenge our underlying assumptions. When we did so, problems that seemed impossible suddenly seemed solvable.

But how do you challenge assumptions? Are there specific techniques that can help you unlock your creativity and come up with a radical new solution that dramatically improves upon the old one? 

Write Down Your Assumptions

First things first. Before you can challenge your assumptions, you must write them down.

Spend time on this part. Often the mere act of writing down assumptions highlights ways around them.

Work with multiple people and brainstorm to uncover hidden assumptions you may not be aware of. Break down each piece of your problem or solution into parts and ask what assumptions you have about each part.

Examine Your Assumptions

Examine your assumptions by using the follow techniques:

  1. Redefine Words
    Examine the meaning of words in assumptions. An assumption can be inaccurate because it uses words that are too narrowly defined, too broadly defined or interpreted differently by different people.


    Terms defined too broadly may mean an assumption that only applies to some situations gets applied to all situations. Conversely, terms defined too narrowly may restrict thinking and hide opportunities. Different people may state the same assumption, but interpret that assumption differently because they use different meanings for the core concepts.

  2. Examine Your Qualifiers
    Qualifying words sneak into assumptions, turning accurate statements into over-generalizations. Watch out for words and phrases like “never”, “always”, “all of” and “none of”. Drill into adjectives and make sure they qualify your nouns correctly.
  3. Test Negative Statements
    Re-state the assumption in the negative. Does it still make sense? Negative statements can highlight logical fallacies.
  4. Cross-Validate Your Assumptions
    If you have multiple related assumptions, build a model that calculates one assumption from the other and vice versus. When dealing with numbers, a top-down versus bottom-up analysis can cross-validate your assumptions.


    For instance, calculate your revenue from the assumption of how many leads you can generate a month, then calculate the number of leads you need from your revenue assumption. If the numbers differ greatly between the two models, the assumptions are either wrong or the models are wrong. Most often, it’s the assumptions.

  5. Hypothesize Without Your Assumption
    Do a thought experiment on what would happen if the assumption didn’t exist. How would that change your actions and the actions of those around you? What other assumptions wouldn’t make sense because they depend on the assumption you’re removing? Even if the assumption is valid, assuming it’s not highlights dependencies between assumptions.
  6. Hypothesize With Different Assumptions
    Do another thought experiment, but instead of eliminating the assumption, narrow, broaden or change a parameter of the assumption. What consequences does this have?


    For instance, if my assumption is if I buy a red car I increase my chance of getting a speeding ticket, what happens if I assume buying a blue car increases this chance? Or if I assume that it has to be not just a red car, but a red sports car?

  7. Ask Why
    Ask why the assumption exists. Uncover the reasoning behind them the assumption and examine that. Can the underlying reason be used to create a more accurate assumption? For instance, if the reason I assume red cars get more speeding tickets is because red cars get bought by people who like to speed, my assumption switches from the car to the person buying the car.
  8. Follow the Rabbit Hole Down
    Iterate on each of these techniques as assumptions uncover further assumptions. Try to get to the root assumptions and validate those. Then derive additional assumptions if appropriate. Use the 5 Whys method to keep drilling into your problem.

Using these techniques you can quickly uncover problems with your assumptions and come up with creative new solutions.

Keep in mind, though, that even with these techniques, assumptions remain just that, assumptions. Use well-designed experiments to validate them if you can, but keep an open mind that any of your assumptions may not be true.

What assumptions do you need to challenge?

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