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Dec 01, 2023

3.5 minute read...

One of the challenging things about assumptions is that they’re really hard to identify.

After all, if you knew you held an assumption that wasn’t true, you’d stop holding that assumption.

But of course, it’s not that simple. People go years and years holding and reinforcing incorrect assumptions that yield the same or worsening results. These Assumption Loops can go on for a really long time.

This isn’t a new problem. There are plenty of phenomena or occurrences that we’d like to identify and affect, but that are difficult or impossible to observe.

Consider crime. Like assumptions, criminals don’t want to be identified. It’s obviously not in the criminal’s interest to be directly observed, and so they will often go to great lengths to obfuscate and elude authorities. Because of this, investigators often need to use proxies for identifying when and where crime is occuring. Examples of this are unusual transaction patterns on credit cards in the case of broader financial fraud, increased levels of drugs in wastewater for identifying drug trafficking, and unusual purchases of fertilizer in the case of bomb-making. 

Or how about something that’s literally invisible: carbon monoxide. In the 19th century, it was not uncommon for gas leaks to occur in coal mines, poisoning the miners in the process. Because carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless, and tasteless (a bit like a bad assumption), it required a proxy for identification. In the case of coal mines, the solution was canaries. Canaries are small and sensitive to poisonous gasses and would keel over before any coal miner would. If your canary was panicking, or dead, you were probably in the presence of carbon monoxide and should get out.

These are just two examples of phenomena that are difficult to observe but that nonetheless require identification if we’re to do anything about them. They also show us a path forward for our own assumptions.

If we want breakthrough – and to get out of an endless cycle of the same assumptions leading to the same and worse results – we need proxies to alert us to when we’re likely holding an incorrect assumption.

4 Proxies

Here are 4 proxies (or what I call Mindset Traps) for when you’re probably holding a faulty assumption:

  1. You find yourself saying (or thinking) "I know!". "I've seen this before and I already know how it works." or “I’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt” or “we tried that already and it didn’t work.” If you find yourself adamantly saying something like this, you almost undoubtedly have assumptions in there that are outdated or have gotten you into your situation in the first place. Overconfidence about what you already know is a perfect hiding spot for faulty assumptions.
  2. You find yourself blaming people. Blaming is fertile soil for faulty assumptions. This is because blaming is rarely done to actually solve problems. Instead it mostly serves to find a scapegoat. If you find yourself blaming - looking for WHO caused the problem rather than WHAT caused the problem, you're not solving anything and you’re likely holding faulty assumptions about the situation, person or group.
  3. You find yourself thinking that a conflict is unsolvable. If you see a conflict as unsolvable, guess what - you won’t get it solved. If you believe a conflict is insolvable, you likely have faulty assumptions about the people and/or the situation that led to that conflict. And it’s those assumptions that will perpetuate the conflict.
  4. You find yourself paralyzed by complexity. The world is a complex place. But when that complexity causes you to throw up your hands in defeat, there are probably faulty assumptions at play. The reality is that we, as people, are amazingly capable of deciphering and improving upon even the most complex situations. The assumption that a complex situation is just “too complex to significantly improve” is almost always untrue.

If you can identify, or attune yourself to, the presence of invalid assumptions, you have your first victory in getting out of a bad Assumptions Loop. And that first victory will set you up for real tangible breakthroughs down the road.

So what do canaries and criminals teach us about our own assumptions? It’s that when something can’t be seen, we need to get clever and find proximate indicators. We’re an ingenious species; we’ve been doing stuff like this for thousands of years. Let’s add our own assumptions to the mix.

Till next time,


Note: On Jan 4th at 8:00 AM PST, I'm going to be holding a FREE webinar. In it I'll teach you how to use the 8-step Mystery Analysis. This tool is a great hack when you want to uncover the faulty assumption that led to a difference between an anticipated result and the actual result.   Sign up here to attend.



Whenever you're ready, here are a couple of ways I can help you:

  • Assumption Hacking Essentials. Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt said in his forward to The Goal, “The challenging of basic assumptions is essential to breakthroughs.” In this digital course, I'll take you through a five step process for challenging those basic assumptions and creating breakthrough in the process. Join the waitlist and get notified when the course is released.
  • Jenrada Programs. Customized workshops and longer engagements to help you create an organization of aligned problem solvers delivering extraordinary results. Complete this form,  send me an email, or schedule a discovery call.


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