Assumption walls are brick walls in your thinking that prevent you from seeing and accepting the new in the present and constrain how you think about possible futures. You will know you have hit an assumption wall when you have a reaction like:
- that will never happen! - meaning this is totally outside the realm of my experience so it must be wrong, and/or
- that's rubbish! - meaning that conflicts with everything I know to be true so it must be wrong.
You hit an assumption wall because new information is being presented about changes shaping the future of your organisation. The assumption wall triggers a reaction that defends current ways of knowing and understanding the world. It's equivalent to the amygdala generating flight or fight responses when we face physical danger. Reactions like 'no, that won't happen' is a flight response - it means that you don't have to deal with the issue, that you can ignore it and return to your comfort zone of today's certainties.
Remember these well known examples of smart people hitting an assumption wall?
- "Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction”: Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872
- “Heavier than air flying machines are not possible”: Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society, 1895
- “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau”: Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929
- “Space flight is hokum”: Astronomer Royal, 1956
- “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out”: Decca Recording Co. rejecting The Beatles, 1962.
- “I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers”: Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943
- “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home”: Ken Olson, founder of Digital Equipment, 1977
- “640K of RAM ought to be enough for anybody”: Bill Gates, 1981
Hindsight lets us see that these smart people said some very stupid things that we can now laugh about. At the time, these experts believed their statement to be true, but in reality they had hit an assumptions wall and couldn't see how anything beyond their knowledge and experience was possible. More importantly, they didn't know or weren't prepared to challenge their assumptions about how they thought about futures and engage with the complexity of the present. This doesn't just happen to experts; assumption walls appear in everyone's thinking.
If you are looking for strategic responses to change and the uncertainty shaping futures, you will hit an assumption wall in your thinking at some stage. When you do, your first reaction must be to stop. Then ask yourself questions like:
- why do I believe that?
- what would need to be happening for me to believe (your change/issue/uncertainty) to be true?
- is that happening and I'm refusing to see it as real?
- why am I refusing to see it as real?
- are my assumptions still relevant?
Your brain will hurt when you hit an assumption wall and you recognise it - rather than ignore it. You have to surface deeply held and often unconscious ways of seeing the world and making meaning of it and admit they may no longer be useful. You then have to expand your mental model to accept new assumptions to underpin your thinking about futures. This is uncomfortable for everyone but an essential part of the process when dealing with change, uncertainty and the future in meaningful ways.
You can be right about assumption walls though. What you are seeing can be rubbish or may never happen in your context at this time.
The mistake we make is to assume it will NEVER happen at ANY time in ANY context.
Leaving Assumptions Unchallenged
Not surfacing assumptions that are deeply held and valued today and not challenging them for value and relevance in the future is one of the major reasons foresight projects often lack practical outcomes and why conventional change management programs fail.
There can be excellent processes, consultation, collaboration, strong scanning reports about change and an agreed strategy at the end. And nothing changes because the way people think about the change shaping the future stays trapped in today's context. In change programs, for example, change in the external environment results in an organisational restructure. People get new jobs, new desks, new offices but apply their old thinking to their new work without even knowing they are doing it. Very little changes.
If assumptions haven't been identified and challenged collaboratively and overtly during a foresight project, very little will change, resulting in images of futures that are bounded, comfortable and unhelpful. The gap between today and any preferred future will always require new thinking with new assumptions to move beyond today. If that doesn’t happen, people will enjoy the process, but they will not change how they think and work.
Without recognising the impact of assumption walls on thinking, increasingly irrelevant assumptions about reality are likely to be applied to the operation of organisations, to how work is done, and to how the future of your organisation is explored and understood. The result? That new strategy fails to be implemented effectively, the new organisational structure doesn't achieve the desired outcomes, or worse, the organisation fails because assumption walls were ignored and the status quo was maintained. Think Kodak, Borders, Blockbuster.
Assumption walls are a thing to be welcomed not feared, to be explored not ignored. They are meant to be broken down. They are an opportunity to build the capacity to think in new ways about futures that generate strategy and responses to change that will allow your organisation to be futures ready.