The theory behind the approach

Sometimes our ability to generate new ideas is simply inhibited by the way we are constructed.

We’re hardwired to recognize patterns. And like any strength within a system, the system will rely on it. The human brain uses patterns, structures or routines – cognitive scientists call these mental models – to make us more effective and efficient. You probably have a pattern for what you do when you get up in the morning; it’s so ingrained that you can do it in your sleep. Usually, the brain relies on our most familiar patterns – the ones we “know” to be true because they have served us in the past. But the reliance on these favorite patterns limits our thinking. For instance, a surgeon is likely to view a medical condition first from the perspective of, “How might I operate to fix this problem?” before exploring other less invasive solutions.

The antidote against patterned thinking is Assumption Busting. It requires consciously examining and revealing the assumptions that exist in our thinking patterns. Assumptions are sometimes so familiar to us that we don’t even notice them; they escape detection. The purpose of Assumption Busting is to identify these automatic responses and alter them in order to reframe our understanding of a situation or a challenge.

In the 1970s, coffee – in the United States – was sold in stores in large tin cans where suppliers competed on price, and at diners and restaurants without fanfare. The “to-go” options were minimal: a Styrofoam cup, the choice of cream and sugar or not. Starbucks challenged the assumption that coffee was a commodity and built a billion-dollar business by creating a coffee experience that consumers were willing to pay for.

Assumption Busting can be as informal as taking a statement that’s considered a given and poking a few holes in it, testing it to see if maybe it’s not the only right answer to consider. As a formal process, Assumption Busting is extremely useful when innovation is the demand. It’s especially effective in group-process settings in an organization where beliefs and assumptions are ingrained, steadfast or have a long history. A formalized process can help you to see the patterns that the culture is perpetuating, sometimes unconsciously.

The first step is just to record all the things, all the data and facts you “know” about a situation. Then you reverse them, and see if pretending the opposite is true invites a new perspective. Most of these statements may be nonsense, however, from this chaos a few will connect, and some new wisdom will arrive.

Assumption Busting

  1. Where do you feel stuck? Identify a problem or situation on which you want to work.
  2. Gather data: Use who, what, when, where, why, and how to make a list of everything you know, think and feel about the situation. These are your assumptions.
  3. Deepen: Pick an assumption and make a list of assumptions about the assumption.
  4. Bust Assumptions: Choose one of the deepened assumptions and reverse it. Restate it in its opposite form.
  5. What if? Now take this reversed statement and use the stem “What if?” and make a list of questions that make this reversed statement more true or that expand your understanding of the assumption.

Of course, the best way to understand Assumption Busting is to do it. The brain isn’t likely to burn a new pattern just by reading about it. You have to use it often enough that your brain makes new connections; adds a new pattern. The process of Assumption Busting is a deliberate way to break the patterns your brain has developed: to pose new questions that make new connections that lead you to new solutions – and to innovation

©2007 by Tim Dunne and Maggie Dugan

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