Assumption Busting

Make me laugh

This hilarious commercial works because our expectations are set, reinforced and then smashed to pieces with a great punchline. Creative thinking  can work in much the same way, with solutions only making sense in hindsight. One technique for directing our creative efforts effectively is assumption busting.

Identify your assumptions

Our assumptions are the creative blind spots we take for granted, the facts we don’t question, and the patterns we take for granted. Assumptions are also not always true. Here is a quick way to start thinking about our assumptions.

Using this simple model, we can think of our assumptions as the resources we think we need, the actions we do without question, the process we carry out in the same sequence every time, and the external factors we believe to be plain outside of our control. Let me give you an example.

Before Starbucks we might have thought that coffee was just coffee, should cost about a dollar, and was sold in cafes. Thinking like this we would be assuming limited resources (where’s the soya milk or fancy syrup), fixed actions (no need for a barista or pictures in the froth), and a market beyond our control (cafes everywhere, who wants to change).  But by challenging some of these assumptions …

Once you’ve started identifying your assumptions, it’s important to focus on the most important ones. Try these steps when working in a group:

  1. State your problem and start brainwriting your assumptions for a few minutes (that mean’s everyone should list individually before sharing with the rest of the group, see this previous post on brainwriting)
  2. Clarify your core objectives in solving the problem at hand, so you have a clear idea of what sort of impact you are looking for
  3. Have everyone identify the top 5 assumptions, based on their potential impact if proved wrong. For example, for Starbucks they might think that disproving the assumption that customers will only pay a dollar for coffee would have a high impact
  4. Check through the final list of high impact assumptions and choose 3 or 4 to elaborate
  5. During elaboration, spend time discussing what the assumption means and ways in which it could be altered in order to be proved wrong. What would have to change for this assumption to break? There are some great examples of this here

Bust Them

This is where you get to face your assumptions head on, and find creative ways of working around them. By generating a series of ‘what if…’ statements around each assumption you can really get he ball rolling. SCAMPER is an ideal tool for doing this, as shown below:

Problem: how to revolutionise the boring cup of coffee

Assumptions: coffee is coffee, it costs a dollar, we get it in cafes

  • Substitute: what can we replace the milk with? what about soya milk, or ice cream, or lactose free milk, or froth?
  • Combine: what if we combined the cafe with a cocktail bar? maybe the person behind the counter would become some sort of artist, mixing carefully crafted individual coffee orders from a giant menu of special coffees?
  • Adapt: can we adapt the actual cafe layout, turning it into a crèche or a business meeting room? what about different zones and props to support our differentiated customer base? we could have games in the corner, power points for laptop users and play areas for moms and dads
  • Modify: what can we make bigger or smaller? what about taking the menu and inflating it 20 times so we can stick it on the wall for everyone to see from way out at the back of the line?
  • Put to another use: what if we reuse our wait staff and have them all behind the counter? people could then come and get their own coffee when its ready
  • Erase: what can we get rid of? Maybe we could ditch food entirely and put the whole focus on coffee…that way it wouldn’t be just a coffee, it would be your whole reason for coming in the first place
  • Rearrange: can we change the order of anything, or reverse it? what if we put the counter outside, or brought the kitchen out front? perhaps we could have the coffee machine right where everyone can see it…

Okay, so this is a bit contrived having been done retrospectively, but you get the idea.  In each case, we are taking our assumed facts and turning them on their heads. And if we are lucky, we might even get a punchline at the end.


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