When you’re working with a group of really sharp and driven people to create something completely new, you’ll find that vigorous debate will quickly fill the room. Passionate arguments and diverse viewpoints that collide with and build upon each other are absolutely essential. This is one of my favorite parts of the innovation process. The best path through untrodden ground is never going to be clear, and anyone could be as “right” as anyone else because no one knows what the final answer looks like.
But all too often it can be hard to know when to stop debating and when to start taking action. When there is no clear answer, it’s very easy to end up on the productivity-sucking path I call “Assumption Alley.”
Assumption Alley is a place where debates can (and will!) rage for hours or even days if you let them. Here’s what a stroll down Assumption Alley with your team sounds like:
Audacious Adrian: “We have this cool, totally new superconductive fabric. Visionary Val sees potential in using it for a hat and asked us to look into it.”
Excitable Elliott: “Awesome, it might protect your head from extraterrestrial radio waves!”
Dana Downer: “Mmmh, I don’t think a hat out of this stuff would do anything special.”
Action Alex: “Perhaps we should make one to find out?”
Process Pat: “I don’t know, the fabric seems quite rigid. I think it might be pretty difficult to make a hat out of this. We should hire a professional tailor.”
Dana Downer: “It seems to have tiny crinkles on the surface. I’m sure it feels super weird on your forehead.”
(2 hours later…)
Excitable Elliott: “What kind of hat should we make anyway? A baseball cap, or a sombrero?”
Process Pat: “I think it has to fit properly. Let’s have the design team make a study.”
Random Robin: “I think we should make a shoe!”
Theory Taylor: “I could build an elaborate “superconductive hat” simulation tool based on our assumptions. It would only take a week or five.”
Dana Downer: “Well, we’re running out of time. Let’s schedule another meeting tomorrow with more people to discuss this further.”
Sound familiar? Did you detect where they went off track? It seems super obvious looking back, but it still happens to us all the time! So what to do? When you’re standing at the crossroads (or in a really annoying meeting!) how do you get onto Innovation Highway and not wander down Assumption Alley?
The answer is easy: Make the friggin hat! Just do it!
And the most important part: don’t ask anyone for permission.
Leave the room and start testing your ideas. If you do this, your next meeting could look like this:
Action Alex: “Here’s a prototype that I quickly taped together out of the new material to see what it was like. I found out that the fabric is flexible enough for a hat and the crinkles actually feel great on your forehead. I also tried a shoe shape, but the stuff ripped apart immediately. I found something totally unexpected too: the material redirects your brain waves and gives you the ability to speak German.”
Excitable Elliott: “WHAT? Let me try it!!! Oh mein Gott, Ich spreche Deutsch!”
This rather simple act of doing catapulted the whole team forward. The scrappy hat might not be ready for a fashion show, but it has one important property that all the other imaginary, “perfect hats” don’t have: it exists. Your team can now focus and make decisions based on data. “I think/guess/believe/suspect/assume/suppose/we should/shouldn’t/ could/couldn’t….” Becomes “we know this, so let’s do that.”
One of the actions that came from the second meeting was to add an antenna to explore more language features
So why do we get stuck in Assumption Alley? Our brain loves to simulate scenarios to make us think we know the answers. In my experience, this tendency can be even more dangerous with creative people who have the ability to come up with endless simulations of what could be. It’s also very easy to fall into the trap of feeling good about the expression of your creativity or cleverness. It’s a lot harder to face your own failures, to admit you were wrong, or to find out that your assumptions were wrong.
Assumption Alley is also a deceptive path, luring you with false promises of efficiency: “If I could just think it all through, I could get to the answer quickly without leaving my desk.” But more often than not, it just delays the timely injection of “truth” (aka data) which keeps you speeding along Innovation Highway!
To quote Amelia Earhart: “The most effective way to do it, is to do it!”
I would like to dedicate this post to my team, especially Trevor, Kyle, and Zhefei, who are masters in making things “exist” faster than you can spell “Innovation Highway”! Make sure to check out Trevor’s post, where he gives us a peek into his treasure chest of scrappiness.