HYCS #5 – Assumptions: Silent, but Deadly

Assumptions are the icebergs shipwrecking your client engagements.

Word Count: 965

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Assignment Time: 5 minutes a day, unless you geek-out on this.

Assumptions are for humans like water is for fish:  Invisible, pervasive, and unquestioned.  How you deal with assumptions is the difference between work that scratches a client’s itch so it stays scratched, and work that’s more like a bad case of fleas.

Here’s an example of an assumption in action (in italics):

An HR manager calls for help with a “racial situation.”  A physician (let’s call him Dr. Bad) made a racial slur and was confronted by a co-worker (let’s call her Nurse Mad) who was a member of the race he had badmouthed.  Dr. Bad immediately apologized to Nurse Mad.  Nurse Mad accepted his apology, and Dr. Bad and Nurse Mad were working together without friction or apparent discomfort.

“Their relationship seems better than ever,” the HR Manager admitted.  “It’s the team I’m worried about.  I think this has damaged the team.  They can’t stop talking about it.”

“What are they saying?”

“That Dr. Bad was a real jerk, for one thing.  That Nurse Mad said what needed to be said.  They’re proud of her.”

“That sounds pretty healthy to me.”

“But they are still talking about it and it happened 3 days ago!”

“How is the team working together?”

“They seem better than before.  They aren’t putting up with Dr. Bad’s foul mouth like they used to.  But the damage this sort of thing causes can’t be seen, right?”

“Has Dr. Bad changed his behavior?”


“Has Nurse Mad expressed any discomfort?”


“Who decided to call me?”

“The manager brought it to my attention.  We thought the team could use some help getting over the trauma of the incident.”

“Has anyone on the team asked for help?”


“I don’t see a place to intervene without setting the team back.

“I see.  So you won’t help us?

“I already have.  I’m helping you by not swooping in stirring up a situation that is being handled well.  If I intervene now, the team will assume they are doing it wrong.  Is that the message you want to give them?”

“No, of course not.”


There was only one assumption in the above example.  It’s called an existence assumption, the assumption that something exists, in this case a trauma that was tearing a team apart.   Problems that don’t exist can’t be solved.  These pretend problems eat up time and can cause real problems.  You need to develop an allergic reaction to the existence assumption.  They drive the lion’s share of bad, unsatisfying work.

Uncovering an existence assumption a day keeps the bad work away.

But don’t stop at one a day, or at one type of assumptions. There are so many other types!   Once you start looking for them, you’ll see them everywhere, including in  yourself.  Discovering and admitting your own assumptions is a liberating, powerful example for your clients.

Here are some other types of assumptions that show up in consulting:

The Possibility AssumptionIs it possible?  Just because someone says it’s possible doesn’t mean it is.  Say: “I have a concern about the laws of physics, specifically the number of hours this will take relative to the number of hours between now and the deadline, minus time for sleep, eating and bathroom breaks.”  Or: “Has anyone penciled this out?  My rough calculations are 245 hours and we’ve only got two weeks.”  Challenging the possibility assumption may surface other assumptions, like:

The Quality Assumption – That everything has to be done at the highest quality level.  If you’re honest with yourself, there are several things your company does at the barely allowable level.  You can’t be world class at everything (see laws of physics above).  Say:  “I’m assuming that you want our premium product which is quite expensive (time-consuming for internal consultants).  Is that correct?”

The Speed Assumption – That the place will burn down unless this is done NOW, or better yet, yesterday. Say: “Are you assuming there will be terrible consequences if we don’t meet this timeline?”

The Meaning/Value Assumption – That something is good or bad, desirable or undesirable, rather than simply existing.   I assume this assumption is always in play.    Say:  “Are you assuming this is bad/something to avoid?”   Or, “I’m assuming this is a bad result.  Is that the case?”

The Audience Assumption – That an audience, or entire company sees a situation just like you do.  Or they can’t possibly understand it as well as you do.  Or they can understand it and need to be protected from the truth.  Or that audience members agree with each other. Straight-on is a good approach for this one:  “Are we assuming that your staff won’t like this approach?”

Don’t get hung-up memorizing the types of assumptions I’ve listed here.  Invent your own!  They are the water we swim in and are almost as vast as our collective ignorance.


Uncover an assumption a day.   Out loud.  It can be at home or at work, an assumption of yours or someone else’s.  Look for an assumption whenever conversations turn circular.  Look for one when a word seems to lose its meaning (process, strategy, vision are all loaded with assumptions).  Look for one when there seems to be no reason for a disagreement.  People just plain act funny when there’s an unexplored assumption around.

The simplest way to uncover an assumption is to use one of these sentence stems:

“Are we assuming…”  “Are you assuming…. ““I’m assuming….


Invent another type of assumption and tell us about it on the monthly call or during open comments.  Or send it to me in a email.