Taken For Granted

Which animal runs faster, the coyote or the roadrunner?

What I find when I ask this question is that I get some funny looks, and then most people tell me that it’s the roadrunner. The reasons always vary, and I’ve heard some very interesting technical explanations for why roadrunners run faster, which, I was assured, have nothing to with the famous Warner Brothers cartoon. Nonetheless, they conclude that the roadrunner is faster.

In fact, despite what many of us learned as children watching the Bugs Bunny Show, a roadrunner actually runs at only 20 mile per hour, compared to around 40 for a coyote. Unlike the Roadrunner, real roadrunners escape being eaten by flying, not running. However, real coyotes are slightly more skilled in the use of rockets and other high tech gadgets than the fictional Wile E. Coyote.

The problem with things we “just hear” or other information that we’re exposed to so often that we come to take it for granted is that we may never really stop to think about the data. While I doubt very many people believe that real coyotes carry around an Acme catalog and are capable of running on thin air until they look down, the canonical image of a roadrunner for many people is a flightless bird that goes, “Beep, beep!”

Now, the fact is that unless you are being chased by a coyote on a large red rocket (in which case the strategy is to step to one side and let the rocket fly out of control), knowing that a coyote can outrun a roadrunner is probably unimportant. However, in the business world such unquestioned, hidden, assumptions can cause us to miss opportunities or fail to see potential innovations that are right in front of us.

Part of the problem is that creating an unquestioned assumption does not require showing generations of children cartoons for fifty years. A hidden assumption can be created in a matter of minutes by how we describe a problem or present a scenario, and what we automatically take for granted can become as hard to change as granite. On one occasion, I ran a management training exercise in which I handed participants large envelopes containing various items. The participants had to trade and negotiate to get the things they actually wanted. They were unable to complete the exercise because each person became convinced that at least one of the others was holding out on him: no one would admit to having two of the items, apples and leaves, which led to the assumption that those who did have them were sitting on them to force concessions from the rest of the participants. The hidden assumption that everyone made was that the items they wanted must have been handed out in the envelopes. Thus, no one thought to walk down the hall to the cafeteria to get an apple or thought to pull a leaf off the tree outside the window, even though both those solutions were staring them in the face – one person even walked down the hall for a cup of coffee, passing by the fruit bowls!

Identifying the hidden assumptions can be a tricky business since they are, by definition, hidden. Getting at those assumptions is not always all that simple. It requires taking the time to list everything you think you know about the situation, especially since you may not realize you “know” it: the belief that all the items were in bags, for example, was a very difficult assumption for the group to identify. Sometimes, the listing exercise does the job: once everyone puts their assumptions on the whiteboard, you realize that one or more of them just don’t make sense. Frequently, though, that’s not sufficient. In that case, we must do something surprisingly difficult: asking not what would prove our assumptions right, but what would prove them wrong?

Asking the questions that would prove our assumptions wrong turns out to be an unexpectedly challenging task. We want to be right, so we tend to look for the evidence that will support our positions or beliefs: “Of course all the items must have been in bags, I saw the bags handed out,” or “Of course roadrunners are fast, they can run 20 miles per hour! Why do you think they’re called roadrunners?” What we don’t automatically do is ask the questions, “Must items start in bags?” or “How fast are coyotes?”

Organizational cultures are filled with these hidden assumptions, taken for granted and passed from one employee to another. The breakthrough products come when people look past them and ask the questions that disprove what everyone knows to be true. Of course, if Wile E. Coyote had ever thought to question the hidden assumption that he can’t run as fast as the Roadrunner, the ACME corporation would probably be out of business; given their products, perhaps that’s not so bad a thought.

 

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