“You must stick to your conviction, but be ready to abandon your assumptions.”

–Denis Waitley



Recently, I caught myself making unnecessary assumptions.

Has that ever happened to you?

In my case, I was losing a team member to return to his regular job.  The person who was filling in for him while he was serving with me got a promotion, necessitating his return to his regular assignment.  Since this person’s “day job” is a key role for the organization, the work of the team is of vital importance to the organization, and the promotion opportunity for the third person is to an executive role, I assumed that our organization’s leader would make the decisions regarding transition times.

So I waited for a decision.

And waited.

Finally, the third person called me and said that our organization’s leader left it to him to work out all the details of the transition.  He and I spoke about details, reached a mutually-satisfactory outcome, and moved ahead.

At first, I was angry with myself for making the assumption I did, instead of verifying it straight away.  It would have been simple to do.  My assumption put me in a mode of inaction, waiting to be told of the decision, instead of recommending a course of action.

In one sense, I could look at this in terms of the Levels of Empowerment, where I acted initially at a low, “waiting to be told what to do” level instead of a higher, “recommend, then act” level.  However, there is something more fundamental going on here, something that reveals what I’ll call a “flaw” in my leadership approach.

That flaw is a desire to please my bosses, at least from the perspective that I see it.  Again, the basic framework is one of assumption, so I’d like to explore assumptions further.

To start, I’d like to share my mental process of working out what is going on here.  Let’s start with this: when do I think it is appropriate to make an assumption?  Here are some examples that come to mind.

  1. When we have incomplete data and need to bound a problem. One way in which an assumption can work for us is when we need to make a decision yet don’t have all the data we need.  One can bound the problem by making assumptions that define a reasonably worst case and best case.  If the outcomes are not unacceptably different, then making assumptions helps us move forward.
  2. When the cost of being wrong is minimal. What if, on a cloudy day, I assume it might rain, so I carry an umbrella.  It turns out not to rain, meaning I’m trudging my umbrella with me all day.  Is that a big deal, in the grand scheme of things?  Of course not.

In the situation I relayed at the start of this post, the cost of being wrong turned out to be minimal.

In one sense, I was satisfied, and in another, I was not.  The examination felt like rationalization, without getting to a root cause.  Additionally, I may be confusing assumption with inference.

What clued me in on the latter topic was a recent blog post by my friend, Gwyn Teatro, entitled, “Climbing the Ladder of Inference.”  Gywn shares a story in which she made an assumption, looked at the outcome, and examined it using the Ladder of Inference developed by Chris Argyris.  Gwyn’s story tells me that I have some further exploration to do on this topic, one that drills into my fundamental beliefs.  I haven’t done that yet, which is why this post seems unfinished and why it has been nearly two weeks since my last post.  Yet in putting this post to paper (so to speak) even in its unresolved state, I’m making a commitment to work on this self-examination, to identify underlying beliefs so that I can continue to improve as a leader.



Text © Joe Williams 2011

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