2Test Assumptions

Testing assumptions is probably the second most important creative thinking principle, because it is the basis for all creative perceptions. We see only what we think we see. Whenever we look at something, we make assumptions about reality. Optical illusions, one form of creative perception, depend on this phenomenon.

Most psychology students, for instance, are familiar with the picture that combines an old woman and a young woman (see Figure 2.1). Which of the two women we see depends on how we look at the picture. How we look at the picture depends on the assumptions we make

about the stimulus elements in the picture (that is, the lines and their relationship to one another). If we assume one configuration of lines, we see the old woman; if we assume another configuration, we see the young woman.

This picture was brought to the attention of psychologists by Edwin G. Boring in 1930. Created by cartoonist W.E. Hill, it originally was published in Puck, November 6, 1915, as "My Wife and My Mother-in-Law." It is a classic.

In one sense, optical illusions cause us to see one thing when something else may also be present. In a similar manner, people often have different responses when confronted with the same stimulus. One person may look at a flower and feel happy because it reminds them of a loving relationship; someone else, however, may look at the same flower and feel sad because it reminds them of the recent death of a loved one. Both people in this example perceive the flower, but they also "see" the qualities of either happiness or sadness. To know why we see these qualities, we must test assumptions.

The same principle holds true when using idea generation activities. They present stimuli that elicit certain responses. Our particular response will depend on the assumptions we make about a particular stimulus. The more stimuli we use, the greater the potential idea pool. When these stimuli and different individual reactions are used in a group, the potential quantity and quality of ideas is increased. More stimuli and more people yield more assumptions, which in turn yield more ideas. More ideas give us more options and more chances to resolve our problems.

Everyday Assumptions

We can't be effective problem solvers unless we know how to test assumptions. Unfortunately, most of us aren't very good at this. Every day we act before thinking through what we are doing or the possible consequences. In fact, we make so many daily decisions that it is impossible to test all the potential assumptions.

For instance, the simple act of talking with someone else involves many assumptions. We must assume that the other person actually heard what we said and understood us, that the person's nonverbal reactions indicate what we think they indicate, and that we can figure out any hidden meanings or purposes.

Breakthrough Solutions

Another reason testing assumptions is important is that it can yield perceptual breakthroughs. Testing assumptions can help us shift perspectives and view problems in a new light. As the philosopher Marcel Proust once said, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeking with new eyes." The result often is a breakthrough solution or, at the least, a new problem definition. There is an old joke that illustrates this point nicely:

Old Woman Perception Image
Figure 2.1 Wife and Mother-in-Law.

Two men were camping in the wilderness when they were awakened one morning by a large bear rummaging through their food supply. The bear noticed the men and started lumbering toward them.

The men still were in their sleeping bags and didn't have time to put on their boots, so they picked up their boots and began running away from the bear. The terrain was very rough, however, and they couldn't make much progress. The bear was gaining on them.

Suddenly, one of the men sat down and began pulling on his boots. His friend couldn't believe what he was seeing and said, "Are you nuts? Can't you see that the bear is almost here? Let's go!"

The man on the ground continued putting on his boots. As he did this, he looked up at the other man and said, "Well, Charlie, the way I look at it, I don't have to outrun the bear—I only have to outrun you!"

And so, another problem is resolved by testing assumptions. In this case, both men originally assumed the problem was how to outrun the bear. When one of the men tested this assumption, a creative solution popped out. This single act provided that man with one critical extra option. His spontaneous creative thinking enabled him to gain an edge over his "competitor."

How to Test Assumptions

In most organizations, this may all sound familiar. Sometimes all it takes is one extra option to give us an edge over our competitors or to resolve a difficult-to-solve problem. In addition to using the activities in this book, you can get that competitive edge or solve that problem by testing problem assumptions. Of course, you can't test assumptions about every problem. You can test assumptions, however, about problems of strategic importance or problems with potentially serious consequences. The lesson, then, is: be selective.

So how do you test assumptions? Albert Einstein provides one answer: "The important thing is to never stop questioning." Ask a lot of questions about whatever problem you're trying to resolve. The more questions you ask, the better you will understand your problems.

One way to enhance the questioning process is to use the basic journalism "five w" questions of who, what, where, when, and why. These questions can help us seek data more efficiently. For instance, you might ask the following questions: Who is the competition? Who are the customers? What does our organization do? What is our mission? Where can we make improvements? Where can we get data about our competition? When should we enter a new market? When are our customers most likely to buy our products? Why do people buy our products? Why do we want to enter a new market?

Ask lots of questions and you'll understand your organization and its environment better. If you have a better understanding, you'll get more creative insights on how to improve it. It's as simple as that.

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