I Think . . .

“The least questioned assumptions are often the most questionable.”  Paul Broca, French physician

Every year, assumptions within organizations cause 18.6 billion dollars in waste. How do I know this? I don’t. I made it up because I think this might be true based on what I’ve seen in my work. If you read that first sentence and asked, “Hey, where do they get their facts on this?” that’s a sign that you are thinking critically. If you didn’t ask that question, read on.

In this internet age of information overload it is easy to access vast amounts of data. But how do we separate facts from fiction? And as we encounter an increasing amount of “punditizing,” would we even recognize a fact if we saw one?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines facts as: “Knowledge or information based on real occurrences.” Facts are observable and sourced data. We draw conclusions from facts based on our own inferences, but those conclusions are not the real facts. They are simply our interpretations of the facts or our “best guesses.” Here’s an easy clue to quickly determine if a statement is a fact: if you hear yourself or someone else saying, “I think . . .” as a preface to a statement, then it is an assumption or an opinion.

So, why is it so important to distinguish facts from assumptions, inferences and opinions? Think of it like an avalanche. A few flakes of snow seem harmless, but enough layers of flakes piled on top of each other can send a catastrophe heading your way. Like a few snowflakes, if you begin a premise with yours or someone else’s assumption, pretty soon you are piling assumptions on top of assumptions and this can lead to major misunderstandings and inappropriate actions that cause more harm than good.

We often see this happening in organizations. The pressure to make quick decisions in order to stay competitive and address problems translates to not spending the time to uncover the real facts that are needed to make good decisions. For a leadership team, it’s critical that business decisions are made using factual data – and that all members of the team ensure they are interpreting that data in the same way. This requires everyone to see the same facts and discuss what those facts mean to their company.

Another common activity that reveals more assumptions and opinions than facts is the organizational survey. These types of surveys are great at testing the moods of the people who work in the organization, but they are virtually useless at compiling real facts about your organization unless the survey requires participants to support their viewpoints with observable data.

I know. Your company is complex, and there are a lot of facts. Who has time to consider all of them? Here’s the good news. You don’t need to. In a complex organization, you need to look at the critical facts, not all the facts. Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink! introduces the concept of “thin slicing” that enables us to quickly use our expert judgment and experience to identify the critical information.

Another way to determine which facts are the most critical is to ask yourself and your team a few questions:

  • What role does this fact play in the decisions we need to make?
  • How does this fact impact the rest of the company?
  • Is this fact having a positive or negative effect?

In order to separate the assumptions from the facts in your organization, try this: the next time you are in a meeting and someone makes a statement about an organizational issue that begins with, “Well, I think….” challenge them. Say, “That’s an interesting perspective; where is the evidence or facts that support it?” I think you’ll find that 99.5% of the time, there are no facts to back up their statement.

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