Monday, January 09, 2006

Check your Assumptions at the Door

Check your Assumptions at the Door

My colleague Mike solved a tough problem last week.  A really tough problem.  One that had vexed us for the past five months.  One that was important to our company.  And when he fixed it, he not only fixed it, but he laid the groundwork for it staying fixed. And he fixed it with no capital investment and only a few hours of thoughtful work on his part. 


It is worth examining what Mike did.


Mike has the basic understanding of the context of the problem.  He cared passionately about it, to the point it was causing him to lose sleep.  He kept telling himself, correctly, "This isn't magic, it is physics.  We can figure it out."  Yet we couldn't.


Then, over the New Year's weekend, he had an insight.  He questioned a basic assumption we had all made about the situation.  Amazingly, that assumption was false.  Patently false.  Outrageously false.  He then verified the very falseness of that assumption.  Upon verification, the solution was both obvious and easy.  He reversed the error (this was the few hours of thoughtful work).  And, bang, in less than a day, the problem we could not solve was solved.  For good.


Perceptive readers will recognize this as a key component of evaporating cloud analysis of tough conflicts.  Central to this is asking "What assumptions am I making about the cause which triggers the effect I observe?"  (My blogging buddy Frank Patrick goes deeper on this topic here.)  It is a mental discipline that forces one to think deeply and question assumptions.   Because, when we can find a false assumption, we make a leap towards finding the root cause.  And finding root cause is the only way to rid the problem, completely. 


Mike challenged the assumption instinctively.  Could we have solved the problem in two months, not five, had we employed a more formal problem solving technique sooner??  I suspect so.  That too is a discipline.  We're not there yet. 


Try this today with a difficult assumption.  Finish the sentence "You know, this situation really oughta work if (state assumption) was true."  Make a list.  Put at least seven assumptions on this list (yeah, its it anyway).  Then verify, one by one, if each assumption is in fact true.  You might surprise yourself.


Thanks, Mike.  You da man!


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