If you’re in the business of leading change, then you’re in the business of planning.
And if you’re in the business of planning – then you’re in the business of making assumptions.
Many people think about assumptions as sources of risk. Areas where things could go wrong. And that’s a solid way to think about things.
After all, reality is big and messy. So much so, that our conscious selves can only handle a small portion of it. To maintain any form of sanity, our minds actively filter out unspeakable amounts of information.
And being (at least relatively) sane is great.
But it comes at a cost.
Mental biases is one such manifestation of this cost. A prime example here is the ‘planning fallacy’ – which indicates that we tend to be over-optimistic on timings for our own work while being over-pessimistic on the work timings of others. The fallacy occurs due to two key reasons. First, we often over-state our own contribution to past success, while blaming past delays on outside influences. And second, we’re not very good at extrapolating at scale – i.e. considering how a mistake in the short term ripples into longer term impacts.
And that’s just one example!
We live each day and each moment leading despite these mental biases.
So what can we, as realistic change leaders, do to harness our assumptions?
For this, I’ll draw inspiration from the work of one of my friends, Andrew Hollo. In his recent writings, he challenged his audience to look as assumptions as active predictions. To quote:
“Express no more than 10 predictions that are most material to your future success.
Express them as ‘testable assumptions’, for instance, with a health sector client recently, we agreed that “GP numbers will grow at a slower rate than medical specialists, and both at a slower rate than the population overall”. These are ‘testable’ because we can measure this, and then keep coming back year after year, to see if it’s still true.”
In essence, flip the narrative. For change leaders, assumptions aren’t just a source of risk for your change. Assumptions are also a key method of continually validating and shaping the effectiveness of your change itself.
So this week, explicitly define three key testable assumptions that underpin the ongoing validity on your change’s WHY. Then monitor them.
To Ponder: Presumptive Boxes
A little while ago, someone I had connected with wanted to collaborate together. On face value, it seemed like a great fit. So I pursued it further. Our initial chat went well enough, and it seemed we were on the same page.
But then we started emailing – and that’s when the cracks in the alignment started to show. After sending this person through my bio for their marketing, they asked for “more detail”.
So I added more detail. I fleshed out the types of changes I’ve led, and the types of changes my clients lead.
But they again asked for “more detail”.
So I tried again. This time I gave them more backstory, more learnings, and my personal journey to this point.
But, yet again, they asked for “more detail”.
In essence- they wanted my CV… Dates, employer names, role titles.
They wanted to box me in with a title, or an employer.
“Project Lead”. “Consultant”. “Portfolio Manager”. etc.
And this was a huge red flag.
Because in change leadership, role titles are often fluid. I often say that “I’ve worn almost every possible hat in the change space” – and that’s because it’s true. Before I founded the Valuable Change Co., and for the majority of my early career – the role title I was hired in on was never the one I was doing 3 months later. This is because change needs are fluid so good people will naturally shift onto the most pressing problems to resolve them. (And in change – there’s always a new problem).
That, and I’ve never seen a role advertised as “Change Leader”.
Change leaders come in all forms, and at many levels. Change leadership is sometimes everyday, and sometimes it is transformational.
When it comes to change leadership – role titles be damned.
But here’s the thing. This person wanted to ‘box in’ my career, not because of any malicious intent – but because of a lack of understanding.
And that’s the reflection here for all of us.
When you don’t fully understand something – do you lean into curiosity, or do you look to grasp onto a predefined view of the world?
To Reflect: Your Weekly Anti-Platitude
Assumptions and presumptions are only dangerous when they are unknown.
The antidote here is curiosity.
Which, frankly, takes time and effort.