• Kelvin Ng

Keeping our Assumptions in Check

How to generate new ideas and new possibilities?





“If you are not open to questioning even the most basic assumptions about your company and your customers, then you risk missing the new ideas that will be the future of your business.”


Christian Madsbjerg & Mikkel B. Rasmussen

The Moment of Clarity



What assumptions do you have about your target customers?


What assumptions do you have about your staff members?


What assumptions do you have about driving change, building teamwork, developing strategy, getting people to arrive on time for meetings, and etc?


Our assumptions are powerful. They direct our attentions, decisions and actions without us noticing them, at least, some of the time.


For example, some child-care centres face the problem that parents sometimes come late to pick up their children, and teachers have to stay with the children until the tardy parents arrive.


If the principals of these centres came to you for advice, what would you suggest?


Imposing a fine for late pickups?


In his book, What Money Can’t Buy – the moral limits of markets, Michael Sandel talks about the study of some child-care centres in Israel that faced the same problem, and they tried to solve this problem by imposing a fine.


So, what do you suppose happened?


Later pickups actually increased!


Michael reasons that “introducing the monetary payment changed the norms. Before, parents who came later felt guilt; they were imposing an inconvenience on the teachers. Now parents considered a late pickup as a service for which they were willing to pay. They treated the fine as if it were a fee.”


Our focus here is not about the moral limits of markets or about how people respond to incentives.


Our focus here is about your assumptions about people in this situation and the impact of those assumptions.


Do you assume fine or negative incentive motives people? Do you assume parents are in total control of their own actions? Do you assume that parents are the only target of your action? Do you assume …?


What are some other possible solutions? What about adding a new evening service? What about rewarding the kids who could leave on time with a stamp or other little things? I am sure there are many more solutions.


Assumptions limit what is possible in our thinking.


Having assumption is not a bad thing. In fact, it is our natural tendency to make assumptions.


Assumptions are theories based on historical events and personal perceptions. It is kind of learning, and established assumptions help us make decision and take actions faster.


The problem is that our assumptions blind us if we are not aware of them or treat them as universal truth.


So, we need to play attention to what assumptions we have in relation to the situations.


Making faster decision is one thing, making good decision is another thing.


If you want to generate new ideas and new possibilities to resolve a problematic situation, play attention to your assumptions. The four key actions are:


  • Approach a problem without preconceived assumptions

  • Bring assumptions to the surface

  • Make disagreement the wake-up call to your assumptions

  • Challenge your assumptions


Approach a problem without preconceived assumptions?



“It is a capital offence to theorize (define meaning and make assumptions) before one has the data.”


Sherlock Holmes

(Doyle, 1892)


In their book, The Moment of Clarity – Using the human sciences to solve your toughest business problems, Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen, challenge the set of assumptions currently at play in the corporate world about customers, about strategy development and about creativity in business.


The authors think that companies get people wrong because their assumptions about them are not right.


They thinks companies normally work with the assumptions that


  • Customers are predictable and rational decision makers.

  • Customers are fully informed.

  • Customers know what they want, and you just need to ask what they think and feel.


Based on those assumptions, companies study their customers through focus groups and surveys, instead of studying them in the context of their lives without any preconceived assumptions.


In the book, LEGO is quoted as an example to illustrate the impact of assumptions on our attention, action and decision, and the importance of getting those assumptions right.


In early 2000, when LEGO was struggling with their business and trying to find a way out, the following assumptions are at play in their thinking:


  • Kids were facing time compression, and they no longer had time to play. LEGO’s brick system, known for requiring a lengthy time commitment, was becoming obsolete.


  • LEGO‘s old fashioned bricks could not compete with the excitement offered by the plug-and-play digital toys.


  • LEGO’s traditional consumer base – young boys who like to build – was jeopardising its ability to break into trendier markets. LEGO wanted to move away from the idea that LEGO was for kids who didn’t have friends.


With the assumptions in mind, LEGO moved away from the bricks and the mini-figure with a yellow smiling face. They produced Clickkits, Galidor, Bionicle figures, and many others that meet the "pressure to bring more aggressive play into the brand: darker colours with more violence and danger.”


However, this strategy did not get them anywhere.


In 2004, LEGO wanted to know children’s desires in a deeper way and embarked on studying children with a different method. A method (called Sense-making by the authors) that does not start with preconceived assumptions of the situation and the people involved and that observes customers in the context of their lives.


And, they found that:

  • Children have time. “In reality, 40% of kids have a fair amount of time, while another 40% have not time. The average can’t tell you anything.”


  • Children play to get oxygen (as they are always under the radar of the parents).


  • Children desire for mastery. They play to achieve mastery at a skill.


  • Children play to understand hierarchy and social order. Capability in terms of ranking is kind of social currency.


With these new assumptions, LEGO rebuilt their business by re-connecting with their bricks and their consumers in a new way as we have observed in last 10-15 years.


So, the set of assumptions one brings into a situation direct where and how one looks at the situation.



“If we can say anything about the study of experience, it is this: Don’t start your inquiry with the theoretical. Only experience stripped of hypothesis will reveal the rich reality of humanity.”


Christian Madsbjerg & Mikkel B. Rasmussen

The Moment of Clarity



Bring assumptions to the surface!


My mentee will graduate from university soon? What would you suggest I give him as a present?


A name card holder? A barware set? A laptop bed tray desk? A journal?


Your suggestion, whatever it is, comes with assumptions about my mentee and his life after graduation.


We make assumptions all the time.


We assume what others want.

We assume what is important.

We assume cause-&-effect relationship.

We assume others’ intention.


If you look carefully, you will find that even a simple statement, “…we need to do a roadshow on the company’s core values …”, already includes many assumptions, such as …


  • There is a problem, and action is needed.

  • People don’t know our core values.

  • Not knowing the core values creates the current problem.

  • Roadshow, not other means, is the way to do it.

  • You (the listeners) know who ‘We’ is.

  • We don’t have other choice.

  • It is necessary.

  • etc


Tuning up one’s sensitivity and capability to identify assumption is critical.


Make disagreement the wake-up call to your assumptions!


An effective way to keep your assumptions in check is treating the person who disagrees with you as a wake-up call to your assumption, instead of an obstacle to be overcome or, even, an enemy to be eradicated.


Ask yourself,


“What are the assumptions he/ she has that are supporting his/ her argument and decision?”, and then …


“What are the assumptions I have that are supporting my argument and decision?”


If you do so, chances are you will turn your debate or discussion with the other person into a more generative conversation that creates new ideas and possibilities.


In the book, The Moment of Clarity, the authors also quote an example about a senior executive in one of the world’s largest makers of athletic shoes posed the question, ‘Is yoga a sport?’, to the team during a business planning off-site meeting some 20 years ago.


The question was pushed aside as the team thought that discussing the design strategy was more important at the time.


If the question, “Is yoga a sport?”, was received openly, it could become the key to dismantle the core assumption driving the entire sports shoe business industry at that time.


The core assumption of the sports industry at play at that time was that “sports products are created to help athletes win and customers would choose the products best able to give them a competitive advantage.”


With that assumption at play, executives were ‘too blind to see’ the business potential of non-competitive sports.


History has shown us that challenging this assumption has opened up a huge business opportunity.


The same principle applies when you encounter disagreement.


Receive it openly and ask, “What assumptions I have about his/ her points of view?”, or "What assumptions I have are challenged by his/ her points of view?"


Challenge your own assumptions!


Once, you have identified your assumptions. You may simply ask yourself.


“Is that true? Is that really true?”


“Does it apply to the current situation?”


“What would I do if I didn’t have this assumption?”


Remind yourself: It is not about right or wrong, it is about new possibilities.


This is the language of co-creation!

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