Entrepreneurs

Council Post: Questioning Self-Evident ‘Truths’

By Andrew McConnell, Co-Founder and CEO of Rented.

As Covid-19 raged around the globe and completely changed how and where many worked, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, bravely spoke up and articulated what many executives and corporate leaders were already thinking. Working from home, he said, “doesn’t work for those who want to hustle. It doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation. It doesn’t work for culture.”

This statement and these sentiments were so obvious, they hardly needed stating aloud. Clearly, everyone knew this, it’s just that they enjoyed working from home and so were trying to find excuses for doing so.

There is one slight problem: It just isn’t true.

As a recent New York Times article explains, “people who study the issue say there is no evidence that working in person is essential for creativity and collaboration.” It is something that feels like it should be true, and so we assume it to be so. The data tell a different story.

This is just one example of many things we “know” to be true that actually aren’t. For example, we all know how necessary incentive-based compensation is to motivate sales teams. Actually, far from being necessary, it might not even be helpful in individual and company performance (see, e.g., Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards that cites studies going back to the 1970s that repeatedly and consistently debunk this assumption).

Or the “fact” that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure that can be seen from space. As China’s first man in space, Yang Liwei pointed out nearly twenty years ago that this isn’t actually true. Yet we all still “know” it as a “fact.”

And then there is my favorite example: a frog will jump out of a pot if placed directly in boiling water, but not if placed into a pot that slowly rises in temperature. As Adam Grant points out in Think Again, this is an example of one of those “facts” that just happens to not be true.

It is true that some of these examples are silly and have no bearing on our day-to-day lives or our professional careers. Others, however, have very direct influences on how we live our lives and run our companies, and this is by no means an exhaustive list. It is, after all, one thing to simply be wrong about something because there is no evidence to disprove the assumption. It is clearly another thing to persist in wrongly held assumptions when the truth is readily known and easily accessible.

So, what should we do?

List Your Assumptions

Start by listing out the assumptions underlying your decisions and how you operate. Rarely are these clearly identified. They can be so baked into our minds, our company culture and our way of operating that we never think twice about them. This is a mistake. You can’t question and test something you have not clearly identified and articulated.

Research

Once you have the list of assumptions, it is time to research if they are indeed true. Some might have been true and right at one point, but are no longer — like the story of the family whose pot roast recipe called for cutting off the ends of the roast before putting it into the oven. When generations later a child thought to ask why, the family learned this all started because the grandmother’s pan had been too small to fit the roast, and so it was a necessity that no longer had any useful application. Others, like the Great Wall of China being visible from space, may never have been true, but only now do we have the means to confirm or disprove the assumption. Both kinds of corrections are useful and necessary.

One pro tip here: If you’re trying to prove yourself right, it can be relatively easy to do so. Just phrase a Google search in a way that assumes your assumption is true and you can come up with pages of results confirming that assumption. More useful is to do the opposite (i.e., start your research from a place that assumes your assumption is wrong). Look for evidence to the contrary. This is more likely to bring you to the truth.

Test Corrections

Once you have a revised list of “truths” to operate from, it is time to test changes based on your newfound understanding of the reality you are operating within. Not every change will be effective. This does not mean you can or should go back to your old way of operating. It just means that you haven’t found the best new way of operating yet. Keep at it.

Repeat

This is not a one-off exercise, nor is it necessary or even feasible to run through every time you have to make a decision. Depending on the size and scope of what you are looking at, find the right cadence for this process. Some might need to be reviewed annually; others, more or less so. Play with this to see what is right for you, your business and the assumption being assessed in any given situation.

Conclusion

None of this is meant to suggest this will be easy or quick. Even with something staring humanity in the face every single day, such as the fact that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa, it took more than a century between Copernicus publishing his treatise positing this fact and its truth becoming generally accepted. That being said, in today’s dynamic market of competition and innovation, few companies have the luxury of being wrong for one hundred years. All the more reason to start questioning those assumptions today.

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