The Assumption Paradox

June 29, 2010 by  Filed under: Management 

Leaders need to make tough decisions – and yet almost always those decisions are based on a set of assumptions. One of the most pervasive assumptions in our society is that we are powerful actors, capable of solving any problem if we just tackle it rationally. We assume we can affect major outcomes through the force of our will. We assume we can do it, we act according to that assumption, and then we refuse to hear otherwise. Our fear of looking foolish leads us to refuse to admit defeat, even in the face of contrary evidence. This can result in a series of poor decisions that, bulwarked by our assumption of competence, further reinforce our incompetence! As the author Colin Wilson said: “fear is the mind killer.” And assumptions are the accomplice, driving the getaway car.

The key to negotiating your way through the assumption paradox is by recognizing the underlying fear at work – the fear of self-exposure – and finding the courage to discuss your assumptions and admit your mistakes to others. This means creating a culture where people are free to challenge one another’s thinking and are able to ask questions straightforwardly. It’s not the first time this theme has appeared in this book: If you, the leader, can admit your mistakes and stand aside to let trust lead the way, you will have found the key to success within a high-performing organization. No one can be right if every one is wrong, goes the old axiom. But, on the other hand, no one can be right if everyone’s right. You have to set the tone for others.

I’ve been nearly killed by my assumptions. One day I decided I wanted to build a bridge across the stream at our farm in Virginia. I reconnoitered the situation and decided that if I cut down a particular oak tree, I could make it fall in such a way that it would land across the stream and become a perfect bridge. So I took my chain saw down to the stream one Sunday morning. The tree was a large white oak. According to tradition, I axed first the side of the tree where I wanted it to come down. I then went to the other side to complete the cut. Halfway through, I heard a horrible ripping noise. With a terrifying roar, the tree shook violently and split from top to bottom like a giant piece of kindling. Half the tree came crashing to the ground, skimming my head and missing me by a mere fraction of an inch. Standing by the fallen tree, my body taken over by adrenaline, I could see what had happened: The tree had been rotting from the inside, penetrated by rain and insects. Instead of a footbridge, the tree had nearly become my guillotine! I returned home, shaken but alive.

There are plenty of analogies in the business world. When America Online purchased Time Warner, the latter assumed that AOL could create an enormous new sales channel for Time Warner content. Much to Time Warner’s dismay, none of the projected synergies materialized. Edgar Bronfman, CEO of Seagram’s, envisioned a wild media race during which he would push Universal Studios, which he purchased in the late 1990s, to new levels. When he turned around and sold Seagram-Universal to French giant Vivendi two years later, it was clear his assumptions had not panned out.

You need to be constantly attuned to your deepest assumptions in order to be an effective leader. Only through a deconstruction of the facade of arrogance can you find a path that clears the most dangerous decisions and assumptions. Regularly challenging your own thinking, regularly gathering a group of people you trust to tell it like it is – that’s the key to solving the assumption paradox

The four leadership paradoxes are described in depth in Chapter 9 of Leading at Light Speed, a must-read leadership book revealing 10 quantum leaps to build trust, spark innovation, and create a high-performing organization.

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