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Marketing Viewpoint by Ruth Winett

The Assumption Trap

I once worked for a company where no one dared to challenge the questionable strategy and impulsive decisions of the company's charismatic, but unrealistic CEO. Eventually, a supplier bought the struggling company, which failed anyhow. Whether old or new, B2B or B2C, it is important to regularly challenge the assumptions that underlie decision-making at your company.

People don’t properly think through critical issues, observes Helen Lee Bouygues, an advisor to "struggling companies." Instead, they select evidence that supports prior beliefs. However, Bouygues believes that people can learn to think more critically by adopting "three simple habits."

Challenging assumptions and "basic beliefs"

Challenge assumptions, especially "when the stakes are high." This means asking questions that challenge basic beliefs. Our client had a complex software product intended for use during disasters. But, our client never asked, "During a disaster will people have the time to manipulate real-time data with our software?" Another way to challenge assumptions, Bouygues says, is to "consider alternatives." If you were an online retailer losing money because of shipping costs, you could consider lowering prices somewhat in exchange for ending free shipping.

Using logic when reasoning

Companies sometimes make decisions based on a chain of logic, but some of the links may not stand up to scrutiny. Last summer the Wall Street Journal* reported that car dealers in Saudi Arabia had ordered staid sedans to sell to women drivers, who had just won the right to drive. The dealers probably thought Saudi women can afford to buy cars, but Saudi Arabia is a conservative country. Therefore, women will want to buy staid sedans. As we reported in our August, 2018, newsletter, the women actually wanted to buy muscle cars. When deciding what if any type of car to stock for women, the Saudi dealers should have challenged every link in their chain or reasoning, especially the final link: What type of car did the women actually want?

Striving for more diverse thinking

We gravitate towards people who are like us and who share our views. Instead, populate work groups with people with different backgrounds and viewpoints, says Bouygues. People participating in a diverse group are more receptive to new information that could challenge long held beliefs. She observes that social media contributes to rigid thinking: algorithms feed us information from people with perspectives like our own. The remedy? Interact with people in different departments and with different levels of responsibility. Furthermore, if you are a leader, withhold your opinions to give team members an opportunity to express themselves.

When making important decisions, challenge assumptions and test basic beliefs. Do they hold up under scrutiny? When basing decisions on a series of smaller decisions, validate each smaller decision. When forming groups to work on projects, select people with different backgrounds and experiences. Of course, this also means hiring a diverse workforce.

*"Saudi Arabia's Women Are Driving, And They Want Muscle Cars," Margherita Stancati, Wall Street Journal, 7/19/18, p. A1.

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