When businesses get into the deepest trouble, you can usually trace the source of their difficulties to an inability to see past a “truth” that is no longer valid. The willingness to challenge “received wisdom” is one of the hallmarks of Change Leadership. Without the readiness to question the status quo—to actually introduce doubt and deal with it proactively—you and your business become significantly more vulnerable to changes you can’t control. Or you set off on ventures that leave you in serious trouble. In fact, the fundamental purpose of our 10-Second Rule (see Change Leadership – A New Standard for 21st Century Leaders) is to give you a focused opportunity to examine your and others’ assumptions before acting, or deciding not to act.
To some people, questioning assumptions or challenging accepted beliefs suggests being negative, cowardly, shaky. For a leader to do it threatens to undermine people’s confidence. Clearly there is risk to pushing against the current view of the world or the expectations behind your current initiatives. But not to do so is usually worse.
Let’s start with a nonbusiness analogy: I live in California, where of course the ground tends to move from time to time. You might assume that the best kind of building to withstand an earthquake would be a solid, more rigid structure: Just make it so tough that no jolt will knock it down! The reality, however, is that the best structures for an earthquake are able to give—they are built to move with the ground motion and absorb the shaking. In earthquake country you want your buildings to be both strong and flexible.
This is equivalent to the role of leadership “assumption busting”—the conscious act of testing commonly accepted beliefs about customers, markets, technology, etc. By being less rigid in your thought, you can prepare to be more flexible when the environment around your business starts shaking and you need to respond or adapt.
History and business lore are full of infamous assumptions and faulty “truths.” You’ve likely heard of the comment by the then-head of Digital Equipment Corporation that “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.” I’m fairly sure you knew that Internet commerce was going to put brick and mortar retail establishments out of business, right? More recently, U.S. automakers recognized the potential benefit of hybrid technology, but instead of using it to boost gas mileage, incorporated electric engines to improve acceleration.
One of my favorite corporate assumption stories involves the old, post-breakup AT&T and its grand strategic plan to win new customers and more lucrative business. With intense price competition in long distance services, AT&T embarked on a costly effort to acquire an array of telecommunication services that it could sell bundled as an easy “one stop shopping” offering for consumers. The benefit: AT&T gets more of your business, and you only have to write one check. The problem was, customers not only didn’t see that much benefit in the “one stop” approach, those who did sign on actually got upset when they saw services that they’d previously paid for separately all added up into one bill! One-stop shopping, the strategy that AT&T had invested billions in to achieve, just created sticker shock for the consumer!
In a business you have to operate every day based on “givens” and assumptions. These assumptions are not all bad; they help you move forward without having to question or debate every step or point of view ad nauseum. However, when critical assumptions are never challenged—especially if they are wrong—you’re like a brick chimney in an earthquake.