Read an Excerpt
ASSUME YOU KNOW
On a cold January day, a forty-three-year-old man was sworn in as the chief executive of his country. By his side stood his predecessor, a famous general who, fifteen years earlier, had commanded his nation’s armed forces in a war that resulted in the defeat of Germany. The young leader was raised in the Roman Catholic faith. He spent the next fi ve hours watching parades in his honor and stayed up celebrating until three o’clock in the morning.
You know who I’m describing, right?
It’s January 30, 1933, and I’m describing Adolf Hitler and not,
as most people would assume, John F. Kennedy.
The point is, we make assumptions. We make assumptions about the world around us based on sometimes incomplete or false information. In this case, the information I offered was incomplete.
Many of you were convinced that I was describing John F. Kennedy until I added one minor little detail: the date.
This is important because our behavior is affected by our assumptions or our perceived truths. We make decisions based on what we think we know. It wasn’t too long ago that the majority of people believed the world was flat. This perceived truth impacted behavior.
During this period, there was very little exploration. People feared that if they traveled too far they might fall off the edge of the earth. So for the most part they stayed put. It wasn’t until that minor detail was revealed—the world is round—that behaviors changed on a massive scale. Upon this discovery, societies began to traverse the planet. Trade routes were established; spices were traded. New ideas, like mathematics, were shared between societies which unleashed all kinds of innovations and advancements.
The correction of a simple false assumption moved the human race forward.
Now consider how organizations are formed and how decisions are made. Do we really know why some organizations succeed and why others don’t, or do we just assume? No matter your defi nition of success—hitting a target stock price, making a certain amount of money, meeting a revenue or profi t goal, getting a big promotion,
starting your own company, feeding the poor, winning public office—how we go about achieving our goals is very similar. Some of us just wing it, but most of us try to at least gather some data so we can make educated decisions. Sometimes this gathering process is formal—like conducting polls or market research. And sometimes it’s informal, like asking our friends and colleagues for advice or looking back on our own personal experience to provide some perspective. Regardless of the process or the goals, we all want to make educated decisions. More importantly, we all want to make the right decisions.
As we all know, however, not all decisions work out to be the right ones, regardless of the amount of data we collect. Sometimes the impact of those wrong decisions is minor, and sometimes it can be catastrophic. Whatever the result, we make decisions based on a perception of the world that may not, in fact, be completely accurate.
Just as so many were certain that I was describing John F.
Kennedy at the beginning of this section. You were certain you were right. You might even have bet money on it—a behavior based on an assumption. Certain, that is, until I offered that little detail of the date.
Not only bad decisions are made on false assumptions. Sometimes when things go right, we think we know why, but do we really?
That the result went the way you wanted does not mean you can repeat it over and over. I have a friend who invests some of his own money. Whenever he does well, it’s because of his brains and ability to pick the right stocks, at least according to him. But when he loses money, he always blames the market. I have no issue with either line of logic, but either his success and failure hinge upon his own prescience and blindness or they hinge upon good and bad luck. But it can’t be both.
So how can we ensure that all our decisions will yield the best results for reasons that are fully within our control? Logic dictates that more information and data are key. And that’s exactly what we do. We read books, attend conferences, listen to podcasts and ask friends and colleagues—all with the purpose of finding out more so we can figure out what to do or how to act. The problem is, we’ve all been in situations in which we have all the data and get lots of good advice but things still don’t go quite right. Or maybe the impact lasted for only a short time, or something happened that we could not foresee. A quick note to all of you who correctly guessed Adolf Hitler at the beginning of the section: the details I
gave are the same for both Hitler and John F. Kennedy, it could have been either. You have to be careful what you think you know. Assumptions,
you see, even when based on sound research, can lead us astray.
Intuitively we understand this. We understand that even with mountains of data and good advice, if things don’t go as expected,
it’s probably because we missed one, sometimes small but vital detail.
In these cases, we go back to all our sources, maybe seek out some new ones, and try to figure out what to do, and the whole process begins again. More data, however, doesn’t always help, especially if a flawed assumption set the whole process in motion in the fi rst place. There are other factors that must be considered, factors that exist outside of our rational, analytical, informationhungry brains.
There are times in which we had no data or we chose to ignore the advice or information at hand and just went with our gut and things worked out just fine, sometimes even better than expected.
This dance between gut and rational decision-making pretty much covers how we conduct business and even live our lives. We can continue to slice and dice all the options in every direction, but at the end of all the good advice and all the compelling evidence, we’re left where we started: how to explain or decide a course of action that yields a desired effect that is repeatable. How can we have 20/20
There is a wonderful story of a group of American car executives who went to Japan to see a Japanese assembly line. At the end of the line, the doors were put on the hinges, the same as in
America. But something was missing. In the United States, a line worker would take a rubber mallet and tap the edges of the door to ensure that it fit perfectly. In Japan, that job didn’t seem to exist.
Confused, the American auto executives asked at what point they made sure the door fit perfectly. Their Japanese guide looked at them and smiled sheepishly. “We make sure it fits when we design it.” In the Japanese auto plant, they didn’t examine the problem and accumulate data to figure out the best solution—they engineered the outcome they wanted from the beginning. If they didn’t achieve their desired outcome, they understood it was because of a decision they made at the start of the process.
At the end of the day, the doors on the American-made and
Japanese-made cars appeared to fit when each rolled off the assembly line. Except the Japanese didn’t need to employ someone to hammer doors, nor did they need to buy any mallets. More importantly,
the Japanese doors are likely to last longer and maybe even be more structurally sound in an accident. All this for no other reason than they ensured the pieces fit from the start.
What the American automakers did with their rubber mallets is a metaphor for how so many people and organizations lead. When faced with a result that doesn’t go according to plan, a series of perfectly effective short-term tactics are used until the desired out-
come is achieved. But how structurally sound are those solutions?
So many organizations function in a world of tangible goals and the mallets to achieve them. The ones that achieve more, the ones that get more out of fewer people and fewer resources, the ones with an outsized amount of infl uence, however, build products and companies and even recruit people that all fit based on the original intention. Even though the outcome may look the same, great leaders understand the value in the things we cannot see.
Every instruction we give, every course of action we set, every result we desire, starts with the same thing: a decision. There are those who decide to manipulate the door to fit to achieve the desired result and there are those who start from somewhere very different. Though both courses of action may yield similar shortterm results, it is what we can’t see that makes long-term success more predictable for only one. The one that understood why the doors need to fit by design and not by default.