a r t i c l e s   a n d   m u s i n g s

Assumption Busting: Breaking Patterns to Find New Ideas

The human mind relies heavily on its ability to recognize, remember and use patterns. The letters and words on this page are recognizable structures or patterns, and allow you to read quickly. Because you've seen common letter and word groups so often before, your eye jumps right past them, while still retaining their meaning. The brain, even today, still recognizes visual patterns more effectively than computers.

The ability to recognize symmetry and patterns is evolutionarily wired in our brains. Infants recognize faces first, and prefer symmetrical faces to asymmetrical ones. Our eyes are drawn to symmetrical patterns, and will seek symmetry where it is not obvious. The human brain likes balance. Symmetric patterns represent a mother coming to our comfort, a pair of animals grazing, waiting to be our supper, or a predator who is charging straight at us. From an evolutionary perspective, it's easy to see how the recognition of these symmetric patterns has been helpful to our survival.

We're hardwired to recognize patterns. And like any strength within a system, the system will rely on it. The human brain uses patterns, structures or routines - cognitive scientists call these mental models - to make us more effective and efficient. You probably have a pattern for what you do when you get up in the morning; it's so ingrained that you can do it in your sleep. You don't even have to think about it, which is precisely the point. You can get out of bed, make your coffee, shower, dress and brush your teeth. While you're getting ready in the morning, your brain can use that time to think about something else entirely: like work, or football, or the layout of your garden. You have the ability to operate on autopilot because you have cultivated this pattern of behavior.

Usually, the brain relies on our most familiar patterns - the ones we "know" to be true because they have served us in the past. But the reliance on these favorite patterns limits our thinking. For instance, a surgeon is likely to view a medical condition first from the perspective of, "How might I operate to fix this problem?" before exploring other less invasive solutions.

Our brain is so good at pattern recognition, that this can be our Achilles heel. Three examples:

1) We see a pattern and there isn't one.
We seek patterns because we feel safer when we see them - we're comforted that the world seems predictable. Sometimes we'll see a pattern that does not exist, projecting a pattern onto a situation to make sense of it. For instance, a gambler at a roulette wheel places a bid based on an apparent pattern that he sees in the numbers that have already appeared. He sees patterns - creates a pattern - as he guesses which number is "due" to come up. But there is no pattern; nothing is more random than a (properly calibrated) roulette wheel.

2) We're blind to any other pattern but our own.
But once we have a pattern, right or wrong, we'll see the data that reinforces it. For instance, during the 2004 U.S. Presidential election, a supporter of the Democratic candidate John Kerry would likely read an article about Kerry's congressional testimony after the Vietnam War and draw a completely different conclusion than a proponent of the incumbent George Bush. Kerry fans saw an intelligent man with integrity, who observed the cancer in the military system that he was part of, and had the courage to speak out against it. Bush's camp saw a grandstander who sold out his comrades for self-promotion, and broke the law twice: as a war criminal, and as a man in uniform speaking out illegally against his chain of command. We choose to see the data that supports the pattern we have already established. The danger is we often ignore the data that doesn't.

3) The landscape changes and we're still bound to the old pattern.
Sometimes we have a perfectly good pattern that we've relied on, and then - sometimes quite suddenly - it doesn't work anymore. If you've ever been to a country where you had to drive on the "other" side of the road, you'll have experienced this. While you're driving on what feels like the "wrong" side of the road, you keep repeating the mantra: "Stay on the other side, the other side..." If you begin to relax and let your mind think about something else, then you remove the new data from your conscious thinking. That's when the old pattern kicks in again and you find yourself playing chicken with an Australian truck driver.

During the first year of her job, a new headmaster of a Montessori school in the Boston area noticed that her teaching staff was suffering from "burn-out." A contributing factor was that each time there was a parent-teacher event, half the parents were invited one night, the rest on the following night, which meant the faculty worked after dinner several nights a week. After a long inquiry into the reason for these dual meetings, she finally discovered that the school repeated special events because of limited parking capacity. But the parking lot had been expanded two years before. Repeating the meetings was no longer necessary, but nobody had bothered to challenge the assumption that every time an event was scheduled, it was scheduled twice.

Organizations that continue to rely on their established successful patterns and assumptions are usually driven into the ground. It's the organizations that observe - or anticipate - changes in the marketplace and react to them by revisiting their patterns that appreciate sustainable success.

In the 1970s, coffee - in the United States - was sold in stores in large tin cans where suppliers competed on price, and at diners and restaurants without fanfare. The "to-go" options were minimal: a Styrofoam cup, the choice of cream and sugar or not. Starbucks challenged the assumption that coffee was a commodity and built a billion-dollar business by creating a coffee experience that consumers were willing to pay for.

The antidote against patterned thinking is Assumption Busting. It requires consciously examining and revealing the assumptions that exist in our thinking patterns. Assumptions are sometimes so familiar to us that we don't even notice them; they escape detection. The purpose of Assumption Busting is to identify these automatic responses and alter them in order to reframe our understanding of a situation or a challenge.

Assumption Busting can be as informal as taking a statement that's considered a given and poking a few holes in it, testing it to see if maybe it's not the only right answer to consider. As a formal process, Assumption Busting is extremely useful when innovation is the demand. It's especially effective in group-process settings in an organization where beliefs and assumptions are ingrained, steadfast or have a long history. A formalized process can help you to see the patterns that the culture is perpetuating, sometimes unconsciously.

The purpose of Assumption Busting is to re-frame a situation or challenge. The attached handout explains the process, which is extremely simple. The first step is just to record all the things, all the data and facts you "know" about a situation. Then you reverse them, and see if pretending the opposite is true invites a new perspective. Most of these statements may be nonsense, however, from this chaos a few will connect, and some new wisdom will arrive.

Assumption Busting

1. Where do you feel stuck? Identify a problem or situation on which you want to work.

2. Gather data: Use who, what, when, where, why, and how to make a list of everything you know, think and feel about the situation. These are your assumptions.

3. Deepen: Pick an assumption and make a list of assumptions about the assumption.

4. Bust Assumptions: Choose one of the deepened assumptions and reverse it. Restate it in its opposite form.

5. What if? Now take this reversed statement and use the stem "What if?" and make a list of questions that make this reversed statement more true or that expand your understanding of the assumption.

Of course, the best way to understand Assumption Busting is to do it. The brain isn't likely to burn a new pattern just by reading about it. You have to use it often enough that your brain makes new connections; adds a new pattern. The process of Assumption Busting is a deliberate way to break the patterns your brain has developed: to pose new questions that make new connections that lead you to new solutions - and to innovation.

2007 by Tim Dunne and Maggie Dugan






>  Go back to articles and musings.