Hidden Assumptions

We’ve been hearing a lot about how it now appears that two nurses working with Ebola patients in Dallas have contracted the disease. The big question is, of course, how did it happen? What was the mistake or violation of medical protocol that led to them getting infected?

When I ran a pandemic flu simulation exercise (essentially, an experiential assessment) in Washington DC, part of the exercise involved doctors coming down with the deadly flu strain. I received some very interesting feedback from one of the doctors. He told me about all the different simulations that they do: natural disasters, terrorist attacks, accidents, radiation poisoning, etc. Then he said, “But we’ve never done one where we get sick.”

Hidden assumptions: the things we so take for granted that we don’t even consider them. Doctors and nurses are used to working with sick people, and they are used to working through a lot of minor discomforts. They just don’t think about getting sick. Apparently, though, no one ever told that to the Ebola virus.

And that’s the key point: our hidden assumptions are great until they’re not. It’s like the old slapstick routine where the comic steps on a rake: it seems to pop up out of nowhere and smack him in the face.

The problem, though, is that hidden assumptions are just that: hidden. We don’t even realize they’re there until we trip over them. At that point, the damage is done.

It’s far better to find them ahead of time. Unfortunately, we can’t just ask about them: what are we not considering? Hidden assumptions are hidden; they are, by definition, the things we are not thinking about or even considering. They are the box we don’t even know we’re in. Experiential assessment can change that by forcing us into experiences that reveal the box.

Real opportunity comes when we realize what we’re taking for granted.

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