The assumption revolution

Leadership Blog  |  5 minute read

Daniel Elvery

Written by Daniel Elvery

The assumption revolution

How to keep smashing assumptions and delivering breakthroughs after the pandemic.


Breakthroughs are everywhere

As the world battles Coronavirus, we’re all being forced to think and act differently. The result: breakthroughs are happening everywhere.


When faced with an emergency, we become vividly aware of anything standing in our way and can rapidly adopt a ‘whatever it takes’ mindset. This is much like the businesses emerging as breakthrough champions in this crisis: adapting their production lines, mobilising their workforce, performing despite the physical barriers. Businesses are challenging long-held assumptions of what they do and how they work to respond with  whatever it takes. They are being forced to notice their limiters and smash-up the rule book. How then can we capture this adaptive, creative way of thinking and bottle it for the future? To sustain a breakthrough mindset and transform the way organisations think and work, for decades to come.


Thinking on autopilot

When we join a new company, we can see everything with fresh eyes. We have an ‘outsiders’ perspective of the bureaucracy, the leadership, the backward ways of working that have crept in and become normal! We can see the limiters that people and the organisation have placed upon themselves over time. But rather than call these out, we put energy into becoming one of the gang; in to learning the rules. Before long, we lose our fresh perspective and buy-in to ‘the way it is around here’. We start to think on autopilot and stop being aware of, or challenging, our assumptions. It’s easily done and is part of the natural drift that makes us human.  


Smashing assumptions, changing the world

The assumptions we hear most often in businesses are akin to: the process change is too big, there isn’t a budget, the leadership wouldn’t approve it, it’s out of my remit. Bottom line; it’s not possible. But Covid-19 has called on businesses to willingly challenge their own rules and change their behaviours to match. Take Formula 1; just a month ago no one would have foreseen competitors coming together to share technology and insights...least of all; them! That would surely undermine their business’ missions and break every rule of competition, right? That’s before you even challenge the assumption that they’re experts in cars, not medical equipment. But Formula 1 companies are collaborating for the first time, and are adapting their knowledge and production lines to make ventilators. From cars to ventilators, from competitors to collaborators. The pandemic was declared just a few weeks ago and since then decades-old assumptions have been smashed to make way for extraordinary breakthroughs.


Going through the process

We’ve also seen liberating breakthroughs in large scale process change. New systems and pathways that usually take many months, if not years to plan.


Highly regulated industries have switched their paper-based contracting processes to digital DocuSign technology. Teams switching to fully remote working within 24 hours, without any time for testing and with amazing success. Manufacturers re-purposing their production lines to entirely different products. New technologies and processes have been implemented within a matter of hours or days, without the opportunity to over-analyse or let the fear of change slow us down. When there is no other choice but to innovate, the freedom to be ambitious and smash our assumptions about the way things work, comes naturally. It’s already becoming normal to hear these extraordinary stories, but thinking back to January; these sudden, transformational changes were inconceivable. And to go a step further, if you were told these breakthroughs will happen in just four weeks most peoples response would be some version of: “that is crazy”, “I’ll believe it when I see it”, or “what are you smoking?!.”


A transformational new habit

With so many breakthroughs happening in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, leaders must seize their learnings and build new habits for the long term. An emergency will often yield breakthroughs, but causing breakthroughs by design is an obtainable practice at any time. Assumptions are our unwritten truths or rules that we don’t even know we’ve got. Access to uncovering them is through our ‘little voice’; the voice inside your head that has a view on… everything! And when you tune into your little voice (try it!) you start to hear the echoes of what you do and don’t believe is possible. These are the window into your assumptions and it’s these that we need to challenge and test for facts.


Take the process change from paper to digital contract signing. The assumptions might have been: it’s not secure enough, people won’t know how to use the technology, it’ll weaken Procurement’s control of the process, it’ll take weeks of training and IT’s time to get everyone setup. None of these assumptions were facts. When we test and realise this, we have a choice to take action; if we’re committed to it, it’s possible. And it’s this commitment that’s being demonstrated by so many industries, companies and leaders throughout the pandemic.


But like a diet, it only takes a few bad weekends for everything to fall over and go back to normal. As with any new habit, we need practices around us to sustain the shift to keep challenging our assumptions.


4 Steps to keep smashing your assumptions


1. Make the commitment; you don’t want to go back!

Make challenging your thinking a new-normal by tuning into your ‘little voice’ and testing your assumptions.


2. Notice what’s changed during the pandemic, and codify it so it is repeatable.

If it’s now ok (and better?) when: meetings are shorter, people work at home, rules are changed, then it can keep working in the future. So capture what’s great and keep it going! This is essential as the mind deletes, generalises and distorts – so spend some time reflecting and capturing the magic!


3. Beware of the gravitation pull of the systems, processes and behaviours that are in service of the ‘old world’.

These can pull us back to the conventional thinking and assumptions that have us play small and reinforce the status quo. Don’t be left saying ‘how did we get back here.’


4. Put in measures that hold you to account to sustain the new learnings.

Be it a poster on the wall, a weekly touch base with a colleague or a shared list of breakthrough commitments amongst your team. Put something in place that exists outside of yourself to keep you challenging assumptions and going for breakthroughs.


When the pandemic is over and life gets really busy again, let’s not lose the breakthrough thinking and action so many are experiencing right now. The willingness and agility to build a hospital in 9 days, the bold collaboration of competitors, all of us tearing up the rule book and just going for it! When we commit to something amazing, anything is possible and we can smash through assumptions of old in a heartbeat. Let this be the new normal.


Published 17/04/2020

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