Confront Assumptions

Confront Assumptions

Challenge Your Assumptions

    Every time that we approach a problem, in any walk of life, we bring to bear assumptions that limit our ability to conceive fresh solutions. Innovators are always aware of assumptions and are always happy to confront them.

    There is a story told about a northern pike, a large carnivorous freshwater fish. A pike was put into an aquarium, which had a glass partition dividing it. In the other half from the pike there were many small fish. The pike tried repeatedly to eat the fish but each time hit the glass partition. The partition was eventually removed but the pike did not attack the little fish. It had learnt that trying to eat the little fish was futile and painful so it stopped trying. We often suffer from this ‘Pike Syndrome’ where an early experience conditions us into wrong assumptions about similar but different situations.


    The way that we see things is often circumscribed by assumptions. In the Middle Ages the definition of astronomy was ‘the study of how the heavenly bodies move around the Earth.’ The implicit belief was that the Earth was at centre of the Universe. In 1510 a brilliant Polish astronomer, Nicolai Copernicus, postulated the idea that the Sun was the centre of the solar system and that all the planets revolved around the sun. He was able to explain the motions of the planets in a way that made sense but was totally at odds with convention.

    The atom was originally defined as the smallest indivisible unit of matter. The assumption was that an atom could never be subdivided. This belief hampered the advancement of science until eventually J. J. Thomson discovered the existence of a sub-atomic particle, the electron in 1887.

    In business we make all sorts of assumptions. For example you might hear people say:


    • Competition sets the price level in our industry
    • We must constantly raise our quality and service delivery
    • Our largest customers are our most important customers
    • We should hire people who fit in well with our team

    Each of these notions needs to be challenged.

    Often it is up to a newcomer to an industry to break the existing orthodoxies. For example:


      Henry Ford challenged the assumption that automobiles were expensive hand-built carriages for the wealthy.

      Anita Roddick challenged the assumption that cosmetics had to be in expensive bottles. Her retail chain, Body Shop, sold products in plastic containers.

      IKEA challenged assumptions by allowing customers to collect their furniture from the warehouse.


      The low-cost airlines like South-Western and Easyjet challenged the assumptions that you needed to issue tickets, allocate seats and sell through travel agents.

      Apple challenged the assumption that a personal computer was functional and not aesthetic.

      Assumptions are there to be challenged and you should relish defying them. How can you do this? Here are some tips:

      • Start by recognizing that you and everyone else have ingrained assumptions about every situation.
      • Ask plenty of basic questions in order to discover and challenge those assumptions.
      • Write a list of all the ground rules and assumptions that apply in your environment and then go through the list and ask, ‘What would happen if we deliberately broke this rule?’ ‘What if we did the opposite of the norm?’
      • Pretend you are a complete outsider and ask questions like ‘why do we do it this way at all?’
      • Reduce a situation to its simplest components in order to take it out of your environment.
      • Restate the problem in completely different terms.

      Ken Olsen was CEO of DEC who were great innovators in the days of the minicomputer. He said, “The best assumption to have is that any commonly held belief is wrong.”

      More by this author

      Paul Sloane

      Professional Keynote Speaker, Author, Innovation Expert

      Face Adversity with a Smile How to Win an Argument – Dos, Don’ts and Sneaky Tactics How to Get Rich: 11 Bold Moves That Guarantee Wealth How to be a Brilliant Conversationalist Think Laterally

      Trending in Work

      1 9 Tips for Starting a New Job and Succeeding in Your Career 2 How to Make a Career Change at 50 for Great Opportunities 3 What Job Should You Have? 10 Questions to Help You Figure It Out 4 10 Ways to Find Your Dream Job 5 8 Characteristics of Entrepreneurship That Will Lead to Success

      Read Next


      Last Updated on April 8, 2020

      9 Tips for Starting a New Job and Succeeding in Your Career

      9 Tips for Starting a New Job and Succeeding in Your Career

      Congratulations, you’re starting a new job! You’re feeling relieved that the interviews and the wait for a decision from the hiring manager is over, and you’ve finally signed the offer.

      Feelings of fear and anticipation may surface now as you think about starting work on Monday. Or you may feel really confident if you have plenty of work experience.

      Remember to not assume that your new work environment will be similar to previous ones. It’s very common for seasoned professionals to overestimate themselves due to the breadth of their experience.

      Companies offer different depths of on-boarding experiences.[1] Ultimately, success in your career depends on you.

      Below are 9 tips for starting a new job and succeeding in your career.

      1. Your Work Starts Before Your First Day

      When you prepared for your interview, you likely did some research about the company. Now it’s time to go more in depth.

      • How would your manager like you to prepare for your first day? What are his/her expectations?
      • What other information can your manager provide so that you can start learning more about the role or company?
      • What company policies or reports can you review that can get you acclimatized to your new job and work environment?

      You’ll need to embrace a lot of new people and information when you start your new job. What you learn before your first day at work can help you feel more grounded and prepare your mind to process new information.

      2. Know Your Role and the Organization

      Review the job posting and know your responsibilities. Sometimes, job postings are simplified versions of the job description. Ask your manager or human resources if there is a detailed job description of your role.

      Once you understand your key responsibilities and accountabilities, ask yourself:

      • What questions do you have about the role?
      • What information do you need to do your job effectively?
      • Who do you need to meet and start building relationships with?

      Continue to increase your knowledge and do your research through the company Intranet site, organizational charts, the media, LinkedIn profiles, the industry and who your company competitors are.


      This is not a one time event. Continue to do this throughout your time with the company. Every team or project you engage with will evolve and change.

      Keep current and be ready to adapt by using your observational skills to be aware of changes to your work environment and people’s behaviour.

      3. Learn the Unwritten Rules at Work

      Understanding your work culture is key to help you succeed in your career.

      Many of these unwritten rules will not be listed on company policies. This means you’ll need to use all of your senses to observe the environment and the people within it.

      What should you wear? See what your peers and leaders are wearing. Notice everything from their jewelry down to their shoes. Once you have a good idea of the dress code you can then infuse your own style.

      What are your hours of work? What do you notice about start, break and end times? Are your observations different from what you learned at the interview? What questions do you have based on your observations? Asking for clarity will help you make informed decisions and thrive in a new work setting.

      What are the main communication channels?[2] What communication mediums do people use (phone, email, in-person, video)? Does the medium change in different work situations? What is your manager’s communication style and preference? These observations will help you better navigate your work environment and thrive in the workplace.

      4. Be Mindful of Your Assumptions

      You got the job, you’re feeling confident and are eager to show how you can contribute. Check the type of language you are using when you’re approaching your work and sharing your experiences.

      I’ve heard many new employees say:

      • “I used to do this at ‘X’ company …”
      • “When I worked at “X” company we implemented this really effective process …”
      • “We did this at my other company … how come you guys are not …”
      • “Why are you doing that … we used to do this …”

      People usually don’t want to hear about your past company. The experiences that you had in the past are different in this new environment.


      Remember to:

      • Notice your assumptions
      • Focus on your own work
      • Ask questions, and
      • Learn more about the situation before offering suggestions.

      You can then better position yourself as a trusted resource that makes informed decisions tailored to business needs.

      5. Ask Questions and Seek Clarification

      Contrary to common belief, asking questions when you’re starting a new job is not a vulnerability.

      Asking relevant questions related to your job and the company:

      • Helps you clarify expectations
      • Shows that you’ve done your research
      • Demonstrates your initiative to learn

      Seeking to clarify and understand your environment and the people within it will help you become more effective at your job.

      6. Set Clear Expectations to Develop Your Personal Brand

      Starting a new job is the perfect time to set clear expectations with your manager and colleagues. Your actions and behaviors at work tells others about your work style and how you like to operate. So it’s essential to get clear on what feels natural to you at work and ensure that your own values are aligned with your work actions.

      Here are a few questions to reflect on so that you can clearly articulate your intentions and follow through with consistent actions:

      Where do you need to set expectations? Reflect on lessons learned from your previous work experiences. What types of expectations do you need to set so that you can succeed?

      Why are you setting these expectations? You’ll likely need to provide context and justify why you’re setting these boundaries. Are your expectations reasonable? What are the impacts on the business?

      What are your values? If you value work life balance, but you’re answering emails on weekends and during your vacation time, people will continue to expect this from you. What boundaries do you need to set for yourself at work?


      What do you want to be known for? This question requires some deep reflection. Do you want to be known as a leader who develops and empowers others? Maybe you want to be known for someone who creates an environment of respect where everyone can openly share ideas. Or maybe you want to be someone who challenges people to get outside their comfort zones?

      7. Manage Up, Down, and Across

      Understanding the work styles of those around you is key to a successful career. Particularly how you communicate and interact with your immediate manager.

      Here are a few key questions to consider:

      • How can you make your manager’s job easier?
      • What can you do to anticipate her/his needs?
      • How can you keep them informed (and prepared) so they don’t get caught off-guard?
      • What are your strengths? How can you communicate these to him/her so that they fully understand your capabilities?

      These questions can also apply if you manage a team or if you deal with multiple stakeholders.

      8. Build Relationships Throughout the Company

      It’s important to keep learning from diverse groups and individuals within the company. You’ll get different perspectives about the organization and others may be able to help you succeed in your role.

      What types of relationships do you need to build? Why are you building this relationship?

      Here are some examples of workplace relationships:

      • Immediate Manager. He/she controls your work assignments. The work can shape the success of your career.
      • Mentors. These are people who are knowledgeable about their field and the company. They are willing to share their experiences with you to help you navigate the workplace and even your career.
      • Direct Reports. Your staff can influence how successful you are at meeting your goals.
      • Mentees. They are another resource to help you keep informed about the organization and your opportunity to develop others.

      Other workplace relationships include team members, stakeholders, or strategic partners/sponsors that will advocate for your work.

      Learn more in this article: 10 Ways to Build Positive And Effective Work Relationships

      9. Keep in Touch With Those in Your Existing Network

      “Success isn’t about how much money you make; it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.” – Michelle Obama

      You are part of an ecosystem that has gotten you to where you are today. Every single person and each moment that you have encountered with someone has shaped who you are – both positive and negative.

      Here’s How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

      Make sure you continue to nurture the relationships that you value and show gratitude to those who have helped you achieve your goals.

      Summing It Up

      There are many aspects of your career that you are in control of. Observe, listen, and make informed decisions. Career success depends on your actions.

      Remember to not assume that your new work environment will be similar to previous ones.

      Here are the 9 tips for starting a new job and succeeding in your career:

      1. Your Work Starts Before Your 1st Day
      2. Know Your Role and the Organization
      3. Learn the Unwritten Rules at Work
      4. Be Mindful of Your Assumptions
      5. Ask Questions and Seek Clarification
      6. Set Clear Expectations to Develop Your Personal Brand
      7. Manage Up, Down, and Across
      8. Build Relationships Throughout the Company
      9. Keep in Touch With Those in Your Existing Network

      Celebrate, enjoy your new role, and take good care of yourself!

      More Tips About Succeeding in Career

      Featured photo credit: Frank Romero via


      Read Next