Saturday, September 11, 2010

How Safe Are Your Assumptions?

You must stick to your convictions, but be ready to abandon your assumptions.
- Denis Waitley

A story I read not long ago told of how for centuries people believed that Aristotle was right when he said that the heavier an object, the faster it would fall to earth. Aristotle was regarded as the greatest thinker of all time, and surely he would not be wrong.

Anyone, of course, could have taken two objects, one heavy and one light, and dropped them from a great height to see whether or not the heavier object landed first. But no one did until nearly 2,000 years after Aristotle’s death.

In 1589 Galileo summoned learned professors to the base of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Then he went to the top and pushed off a ten-pound and a one-pound weight. Both landed at the same instant. The power of belief was so strong, however, that the professors denied their eyesight. They continued to believe Aristotle was right.

While it is easy to find that illustration amusing, it should serve as a reminder for leaders that we must be careful about the assumptions we make as we lead our organizations. The most dangerous thing a leader can do is to assume that the way the company has operated the past twenty years will be good enough for the next twenty, or that morale is good because no one tells you otherwise, or that your leadership is still effective.

There is an old adage about making assumptions and what the end result is. A wise leader will call old assumptions into question and evaluate where he is and whether he is on the right track in moving forward. To help you understand where you are and if old assumptions are holding you back, ponder these three questions.

Are your assumptions based on old facts or new realities? In Aristotle’s day, his pronouncement that the heavier object would fall to earth faster became a settled belief. It was faulty in its facts but nonetheless perceived to be true.

Companies that rely on outdated facts and methods of operation are limited to the potential of those facts. As new realities emerge, outdated facts will only serve to choke out the life and potential of the company. The faulty assumption is that you cannot adapt to the present without somehow disrespecting the past. I strongly disavow that notion and warn leaders not to fall prey to that false assumption. You can embrace new realities while preserving your principles.

Is your future as a leader hindered by old assumptions? Aristotle was regarded as the greatest thinker of his day and to challenge his wisdom would be an unspeakable offense. So the people of his day did what many do now-- they adopted the philosophy of “go along to get along”. In doing so, otherwise nice people ignorantly went along with the conventional wisdom of the day.

John Agno said, “Leaders are born with an innate talent to question conventional wisdom.’ And this is a necessary endeavor if your company is going to survive. Aristotle’s fallacy became a settled fact. It was left unchecked for nearly 2,000 years until someone dared to think differently. Until old assumptions are challenged can you honestly say you have reached your full potential? Don’t hold yourself or your company back by living in the past.

Can you handle the truth? When Aristotle’s long held belief was put to the test and proven wrong by Galileo in 1589, the assembled group of professors refused to believe what they saw. They held on to the old assumption in spite of the evidence. Old assumptions die hard.

Writing in his book, Rules of Thumb, Alan M. Webber says, “Old lines are blurring and blending. And solutions are becoming more creative, innovative, and effective. What happens when old categories no longer fit reality? You can keep trying to cram new realities into old categories. Or you can invent new categories that fit new realities. One path leads to irrelevance. The other leads to innovation.” And this new reality places you at the crossroads.

How safe are your assumptions? As you embrace new realities, be prepared to move forward with renewed innovation and opportunity.

© 2010 Doug Dickerson

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