How to uncover your team’s assumptions to open more avenues to exploration and innovation

I’m going to show you how to uncover the assumptions that underlie your team’s thinking on a project. Here’s why that’s important.

Assumptions are thoughts or ideas that constrain your thinking. Worse, they hold you back without you realizing it. When you uncover those thoughts and ideas, it opens completely new avenues of consideration. Awareness and possibilities expand. Your team is more likely to succeed in the project.

Unfortunately, teams often don’t take the time to uncover their assumptions and miss out on what could have been obvious opportunities.

The pressure to move forward trumps initial reflection

It’s understandable you might not want to take time to uncover and question your assumptions.

  • Questioning assumptions can feel like questioning the project goal itself
  • The project plan was created and approved – it’s time to move!
  • Early work on a project is new and stimulating
  • You want to deliver some quick wins

But it doesn’t take more than an hour to benefit from the insights and powerful perspective that uncovering and questioning your assumptions provides.

Here’s how, step by step:

1. Use prompts to get your initial thoughts up on the wall

A few simple questions generates a host of initial thoughts.

  • What matters most in this project?
  • What challenges do I see in moving forward?
  • What do I think the outcome or solution is likely to be?

Brainstorm each of these for 20 minutes, one answer per sticky note. Get them up on the wall or into your collaborative whiteboard.

2. Ask “why do we think that?” in a recursive loop

Most teams stop at the first step. That’s a mistake. Those first thoughts aren’t the valuable assumptions — they’re first-level thoughts that you are aware of.

To get to the good stuff, pick a thought that stands out in the first group and ask, “why do we think that?” Listen for a couple answers. Then ask, “And why do we think that?”

Repeat this five times or so and you should get to fundamental assumptions. You and your team mates will already have insight.

3. Challenge those foundational assumptions

Now put your insight into action!

Challenge those assumptions. Are they really true? Do they have to be? What if they weren’t? What could you do differently? What directions could the work or solution take?

Uncovering your team’s assumptions is one of the most productive steps your team can take at the start of a project. It makes you aware of how your thinking was constrained.

Most importantly, it opens new, more innovative avenues for you to pursue.

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  1. Oh this is good. I have a new project to help scope for 2023, the first in my new role at my new company. Our business partners/stakeholders have signaled they are open to design helping them frame up the opportunity. This would be a great activity to walk through with them before we begin scoping, and a quick win for me as a new leader here. Thanks for posting this!