Problem Solving Technique: Challenging Assumptions
My favorite problem solving technique is one that points out
the solutions that are normally missed. It is the technique of
simply challenging one's assumptions. We are often trapped into
a certain approach by the assumptions we are making, and when
we challenge these "hidden" assumptions, we find that
there are many creative solutions that we often would miss.
Have you ever been in Los Angeles freeway traffic? We were
once in bumper-to-bumper traffic, trying to get to the airport
at 10:30 at night. I didn't know that there were traffic jams
until late in the evening. In any case, if you have had a similar
experience, you can relate to the following problem, which will
show us how challenging assumptions leads to more creative solutions.
Mike had an audition for a movie role at eight the next morning.
But it was in Hollywood, and he lived on the other side of Los
Angeles. He was notified of the audition late, and now it was
one in the morning. This was a problem, because it could take
as much as four hours to get through the morning traffic, and
he needed time to shower and get ready. He would have to get
up by a little after three that morning.
He thought about this. Just two hours of sleep, followed by
hours on the freeway - this might affect his performance. This
would be his first important role if he was hired, so his mind
started scrambling for solutions. Taking the bus might be faster
than driving his van, but he didn't know the bus schedules, and
it was too late to find out. He looked at a map of the city,
hoping for a better route, and he might have found one, but it
seemed dangerous to guess about routes he wasn't familiar with
at this point.
He suddenly recalled a problem solving technique his friend
Steve had told him about, and decided to try it. He did the assumption-challenging
exercise, starting with a pen and piece of paper and writing:
"I have to drive there," and "I have to take freeways."
Challenging each of these, he had a few ideas, but nothing that
seemed to help enough.
He wrote down the assumption, "I have to leave early
in the morning," and "I have to deal with heavy freeway
traffic." Reconsidering these two assumptions, an idea came
to mind. Perhaps he didn't have to deal with heavy traffic. He
could leave now, instead of early in the morning.
Mike quickly prepared himself and drove to the audition site,
arriving at 2:30 a.m., because traffic was always light in the
middle of the night. In a dark corner of the parking lot he parked
his van and crawled into the back. He set his watch-alarm for
7:40 a.m., and got five hours of sleep instead of two. He freshened
up in the bathroom just before the audition was to start.
The Essence of This Technique
As you can see in the story, the point is to identify all
the assumptions that are already being made, and ask if they
are true, or have to be true in all cases. Using a written list
helps, because otherwise you'll tend to forget some of the assumptions.
Just list them and challenge them, and look for alternative approaches.
For example, you might start by writing down a problem like
"How to generate more income with our business." One
obvious assumption is in the description of the problem itself:
is more income so important, or is more profits a better goal?
Some companies have millions in income with no profits, after
Once you challenge the idea, ask the obvious questions, like,
"How would we increase profits if we don't increase income?"
That could lead to many ideas on ways to reduce expenses, or
pay less in taxes, since both of these would mean more profit.
What about the assumption that the business needs more income
or profits? Challenge this and could realize that you actually
just want more for yourself personally. That might suggest the
idea of borrowing money to buy out a partner, resulting in more
of the existing profits going to yourself.
Problem solving like this is so powerful and creative because
it gets you "out of the box," meaning out of the usual
way of looking at problems. You get a look beyond the normal
solutions when you challenge assumptions. Often you'll even identify
a deeper or more fundamental problem, like when a man who thinks
he needs a better apartment to rent challenges this assumption
and ends up buying a new house. You can see how this can be a
powerful technique for real-life problems.