Posted by Robert Beauchemin on Sep 9, 2010

As the saying goes, assuming often makes an ASS of U and ME. Assuming is often lethal in business, in sales, or in managing people. Assuming that history is a warrant for the future will likely prove wrong. Assuming that co-workers, partners, customers will tell you all the truth and nothing but the truth will likely prove wrong. Assuming that your staff will easily change their current modus operandi will likely prove wrong.

For me, the opposite of "to assume" is "to know". And knowing requires research, analysis, conversations, argumentations, points of view, experiences and validation. Clearly, no one can know everything about every little detail. There such a thing as wanting to know too much. It leads to indecisiveness, procrastination, analysis paralysis and stagnation.

But there is a balance. For me, although there no way to truly measure this, the balance is in the 75/25 range – 75% data and facts and 25% intuition and gut feel.  And yes, we can argue it should be 70/30 or even 60/40, and it can vary based on the situation. But for sure, you have to do better than the flip of a coin, leading to a 50/50 change of being right/wrong. Certainly, you cannot go running a business on 20/80 ratio without getting yourself into trouble many times, way too many times, or perhaps one time too many.

A quick way to make sure you get the minimum level of information needed is by asking the famous Five Why's. Although this method was devised for problem solving and to drill down into a root cause of a problem, the notion is very valid to question and rapidly remove assumptions and assert the rational for business decisions.

  • Why do this? Clearly you need to hear the rational taking this action in the first place. And there are a lot of questions underneath this first one. Are you going to save time, money, your image? Is this going to help customers? Is this going to a popular decision? Are we fixing something broken?
  • Why this way? There is always, as Mark Twain once wrote, "more than one way to skin a cat" [hoping not cat got hurt]. Why is one particular way being proposed? What alternatives have we considered? What makes this way, a superior approach?
  • Why this team? Looking at both the team that makes the decision and the team the might have to deliver the outcome of the decision, a number of questions come to mind. Are there vested interests that should be understood or questioned? Do we have the right skills to make and deliver the decision? Should this be done internally or outsourced? Should the team be more (or less) multifunctional? Why this size of a team? Why these team members?
  • Why now? Do we have the right data to make this decision now? Why should we execute now? What happened if we delayed the decision or the execution 1 month, 6 months, or 12 months?
  • Why this pace? Why go so fast, or so slow? What would be the ramifications on the fundamental reason for making this decision of speeding things up, or slowing them down? What would the financial and people impact? What would be the impact on the rest of the business or activity portfolio?

This is by no mean an exhaustive list questions, but one that can help you avoid knee jerk reactions, where much (read way too much) is assumed. You will still have questions to which no answers can be known. You should, nonetheless, try to answer them and document the basis for making the assumptions.

Just food for thoughts.