Tackling assumptions 101: Or, what to do when your daughter introduces you to her much older, tattooed, boyfriend hell-bent on changing the operating system on your family pcJuly 31, 2008
For years, we’ve been taught by our parents and loved ones to be careful. And, we often assume their suggestions are correct without question. We’re told to be careful of crossing the street without looking both ways; careful of that “bad neighborhood”; careful of “that boy” or “that girl”. . .after all, who knows where they’ve been. Yikes! Then of course, for those of us who live under the specter of terrorism, we must be careful of certain nationalities; of certain places; be careful; be careful; be careful. It’s enough to make you want to live in a box! Oh wait, we’re supposed to live outside the box, right? Ugh. So confusing!
Each of the above cautions is based mainly on a single assumption. That is, that certain people, places and things are not safe for us. They were not safe then, they’re not safe now, and therefore they’ll never be safe. Sounds like good advice, right? After all, the advice is coming from people we know and trust, so it must be true. Well, maybe, but I’d wager they’re more often just acting on assumptions than anything really substantial.
As an entrepreneur, I tend to cast a careful eye on assumptions, and generally heed the advice of my chemistry teacher from high school who always said that to assume is to: make an “ass” out of both “u” and “me”. Perhaps a teacher of yours shared with you this familiar mantra. I have since internalized it, and found that questioning life’s assumptions works well in both my personal and business life. The funny thing is though, try as we might, we often have unwittingly absorbed so many of these false truths already, our real job isn’t to avoid the formation of new assumptions, but rather, to get rid of the one’s we hardly know we possess.
This week, two things I generally believed to be true (and are likewise preached as gospel), slapped me upside the head and brought my own short-sightedness to the fore. These two assumptions are that “old people” (and I use this term purposely) know nothing about computers, and that women (let alone grandmothers) could care less about sports.
So you must imagine my astonishment, then, when two separate groups of elderly women in about their mid-seventies, nailed my silly head to the wall as they covered both of these topics with the type of detail reserved for the local bar, not the local pastry shop.
What I experienced was eye-opening to say the least, as the first group of seniors engaged themselves in a ten-minute conversation about the benefits and disadvantages of their computer operating systems. . .tossing around windows system designators like XP and 2000 like they were menu items from the bakery. . .and the second group chatted about the on-again/off-again successes of the Chicago Cubs baseball team.
And, mind you, this group of sports fans was not just talking about final scores and the highlight reel they saw on the previous evening’s newscast. They were talking about pitching choices, naming names, and even talking about how the game played out – one woman even commented on how she enjoyed the most recent game more than most – as if she watched them all the time!
Ha! Take that you silly man, you!
As a former network PC tech, and man whose intimacy with sports died in the 80’s with the great Dallas Cowboys and New York Mets, I cannot begin to tell you how amazed I was that I was overhearing this, AND that I had let myself fall victim to this demographic assumption. What a wake-up call!
So this got me to thinking about the implications such assumptions have on business, and since my ideas slant toward marketing, it sent my mind racing for parallels in that arena. I didn’t have to look far, as it’s a common mistake we all make.
After all, there are countless examples of huge businesses that made marketing decisions based on imperfect and assumed data. The classic examples of the Chevy Nova’s flop in countries where “Nova” translates to “no go,” and P&G’s failure with the concentrated laundry detergent Ariel Ultra because consumers doubted its cleaning power, serve as perfect reminders of the importance to not assume that product success in one area can be easily duplicated elsewhere. In the end, both companies invested millions of dollars to appeal to a certain demographic the numbers told them they understood. As it turns out, the numbers didn’t tell enough.
Smart marketers, and smart people, know relying solely on a large demographic picture can lead to a flawed decision-making process. So remain on edge, question your data, question your assumptions, and take to heart the advice of former EVP of Toyota Mr. Taiichi Ohno who encouraged his team to always “Ask ‘why’ five times about every matter.” Doing so will help to place you and your firm on a much clearer path toward success as a result.
Because after all, those asking “why” are likely to be your next competitor, and they’ll no doubt be “built” differently than you. And maybe, just maybe, that person will be a tattooed, older woman from a country much different than your own, hell-bent on change and making herself, her firm and her world, a better place for all of us to experience. And my bet is she wouldn’t even know how to pronounce the word “demographic” to save her life.
Oh, and what of the assumed danger presented by the protagonist in our title?
Let him in.
He’s probably a nice guy who will do a bang-up job with your computer. Plus he’ll be able to answer that nagging question about whether tattoos really do hurt. In other words, “he’s safe.”