Dialogue Q4 2019

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Check your assumptions Making great decisions outside your comfort zone means being able to question what you think you know, says Andy Cohen

Bad decisions can lead to inefficiencies, stalled growth, and costly mistakes Dialogue Q4 2019

When was the last time you or your organization felt that you were in your comfort zone? For many of us today, it feels a long time ago. The speed of change and apparent compression of time keep us all, individuals and organizations alike, almost permanently outside our comfort zones. The sense of unpreparedness and anxiety this produces can lead to faulty decisionmaking as a result of greater dependence on untested assumptions. Bad decisions can lead to inefficiencies, stalled growth, and costly errors. It’s why the military places such emphasis on checking assumptions. As General Mark A Milley, chief of staff in the US Army, has said: “Every assumption we hold, every claim, every assertion, every single one of them must be challenged.” For businesses, the implications might not be life-or-death, but they could certainly be critical to survival. Even those who have built their reputations on doing things differently can make faulty or irrational decisions when they move out of the security of their comfort zones. It has nothing to do with courage, IQ, talent, or prior success, and everything to do with checking assumptions.

The danger of unchecked assumptions

Two historical examples show how untested assumptions lead us astray. Orville Wright, one of the two brothers who ushered in the age of modern aviation, dismissed the idea of creating a runway that smoothed over the debris on the airfield (McCullough, The Wright Brothers, 2015). In his eyes, if a man had to smooth over every

takeoff strip, he shouldn’t be flying. Harry Houdini, meanwhile – the king of escapes – once found himself riding with a friend in a new car and unable to open the door on his own. The door handle was in a different place than on older models. Houdini joked: “I’ve escaped from practically every type of container and every size, shape, and weight of boxes, trunks, and other such things, but I wish someone would tell me how I can get out of this darned automobile!” (Shimeld, Walter B Gibson and The Shadow, 2005). One simple design change had stymied the master.