#375  from Innovative Leader Volume 7, Number 12          December 1998

Assumptions Can Be Major Barriers
by Paul Sloane, M.A., M.I.E.E.

Mr. Sloane (residing in Camberley, England) is Vice President International for MathSoft Inc.  He has authored eight books on lateral thinking and lateral thinking puzzles, and he speaks on the use of lateral thinking in business. His home page is dspace.dial.pipex.com/sloane. Adapted from Test your Lateral Thinking IQ (Sterling Publishing, New York, 1994).

Mental Baggage Inhibits Bold Solutions

There’s an old saying, “To assume makes an ASS out of U and ME.”  In approaching problems, in business and other walks of life, we tend to make too many assumptions.  We assume that the situation we face is like others we’ve experienced before. We take a shortcut to a conventional solution and we blind ourselves to all sorts of more creative possibilities.  The more experienced we are, the more prone we are to rely on assumptions based on prior knowledge, which may now be outdated.  It is said that in the mind of the beginner there are many options, but in the mind of the expert there are only a few.  Sometimes it’s best to think like a beginner.  By deliberately ridding ourselves of accumulated baggage and debilitating assumptions we can come at the problem from new directions and achieve breakthrough solutions.

Assumptions - Mental Shortcuts

Assumptions are mental shortcuts which save us time and effort.  If on a walk in the woods we saw a brightly colored snake, we would assume it was poisonous and avoid it.  It may or may not be poisonous but our assumption places us in a least-risk situation.

However, there are many occasions when the natural assumption that things will proceed the conventional, proven way is dangerous.  In the 1930s, the British and French military High Commands assumed that any new war with Germany would be like the First World War but fought with more powerful weapons.  They therefore prepared their defenses against an assumed German frontal attack by building massive fortifications, the Maginot Line, along the Franco-German border.  This solution proved completely inadequate.  The German High Command redefined the basis of modern warfare.  They introduced the new concept of blitzkrieg.  Using fast-moving armored divisions and some lateral thinking, they did the unthinkable and swept through neutral Holland and Belgium into an undefended section of France.  The magnificent and expensive Maginot Line was bypassed and France was defeated.

Marconi, the inventor of radiotelegraphy, faced many cynics and doubters as he developed the theory and practice of radio transmission.  In 1901 he proposed to test sending radio signals across the Atlantic.  The experts all scoffed at the idea.  Because radio waves travelled in straight lines they assumed that radio signals could not go around a curved surface like the earth.  Experience and logic supported that assumption, but Marconi dramatically proved it wrong when he successfully transmitted a signal from England to Canada.  Unknown to all the experts there was an electrically charged band, the ionosphere, which reflected the radio beams back to earth.

We all suffer from the mental restrictions of too many assumptions.  We may laugh when we hear the joke about the alien who came to earth, went up to a gas pump and said “Remove your finger from your ear and take me to your leader!”  But what assumptions would we make on seeing a new creature?  When the North American Indians first saw a man riding a horse they assumed that this was some new animal with two heads, two arms and four legs.

Let’s go back to the snake which we always assume to be dangerous.  It was recently reported that a Brazilian car thief used an ingenious method to steal cars.  He would slip a brightly-colored, but harmless, snake through the open window of any suitable car which stopped at a set of traffic lights.  Invariably the terrified driver would leap out of the car to avoid the assumed threat.  The thief then calmly got into the driver’s seat and drove off.  He exploited the fact that people would assume that an unfamiliar-looking snake is poisonous.

Ask Questions

There’s an old riddle, “A blind beggar had a brother who died.  What relation was the blind beggar to the brother who died?”

If you ask ten people this question they will most likely give the same answer: brother.  But that’s not the answer.  The blind beggar was the sister of her brother who died.  This puzzle, like many others, works because the listener or reader invariably makes a false assumption; that a blind beggar must be a man.

Making assumptions is a natural, but lazy, habit.  We assume that a new situation is similar to previously experienced situations.  This saves us time--we don’t check out all the details surrounding the situation, but immediately jump in with an answer.  Although this process will sometimes help speed things up, it will inevitably screen us from other possibilities and options.  Often we will leap to the wrong conclusion and miss the chance to make a better decision.

Once we embark on a route, based on a simple misunderstanding of an ambiguity, it’s very difficult to solve the problem.  For example, if we assume that the blind beggar is a man. 

Try this.  You have exactly $101 in your pocket.  You have just two notes and no change.  One of the notes is not a $1 bill.  What are they?  Most people struggle with this little conundrum because they are misled by an ambiguity in the wording.  One of the notes is not a $1 bill.  It is a $100 bill.  So the solution is the simple one of a $1 bill and a $100 bill.

Ambiguities occur in all walks of life and in all communications.  Whenever someone speaks, we make all sorts of assumptions about his or her meanings.  It’s easy to misinterpret any ambiguous statements to fit our own pre-conditioned views.  Consequently we often jump to entirely wrong conclusions because our assumptions were erroneous.  Before making a serious judgment about a person or decision, we should check out the assumptions on which we have based our assessment.  We’ll sometimes find that the inherent ambiguities in the case have misled us.

Assumptions Can Incorrectly Frame the Problem

The way we define a problem can contain an assumption which makes the problem harder to solve.  In medieval times, astronomy was defined as the study of how the heavenly bodies moved around the earth.  The implicit assumption was that the earth was the center.  When Copernicus tried putting the Sun at the center of the solar system he found that the movements of the planets could be much more easily explained.

Often in business we ask a very narrow question which contains an assumption.  For example, “How can we get costs back on plan?”  This assumes that the plan was right in the first place.  A better question might be, “How can we minimize our costs over the next reporting period; regardless of the plan we put together six months ago?”


The more experienced we are, the greater the danger that we’ll take mental shortcuts and jump to conclusions, thereby missing innovative alternatives.  Things change so fast now that some of our experiences may be misleading us.  It’s best to recognize that we’re bringing our assumptions to the decision-making process and to act accordingly.  Often the objections we raise to other people’s ideas are based on our pre-conceptions and assumptions.  We can find ourselves using old baggage as objections to crush creative new ideas.

When tackling the next batch of problems, be sure to carefully check out all the assumptions that you make.  Test your assumptions by asking simple, fundamental questions. Restate the problem in different ways and approach it from new perspectives.

Once you drop your pre-conceived assumptions you’re much more likely to find better solutions.

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