An engineer, a physicist and an economist are shipwrecked on a desert island. All they have is a tin of baked beans but how are they to open it? The engineer considers hitting it with a rock, the physicist suggests heating it over a fire. The economist, however, smiles and says: ‘Let us assume we have a tin opener’.
I am an economist, so assumptions come very easily to me, I know how useful they can be. However, I have also learnt to be wary of their uncritical use – and there is an awful lot of uncritical use around today. Why is this? To understand, we need to ask
What are assumptions and where do they come from?
I once assigned a problem to an engineer working for me. I told him that he could solve the problem any way he liked, just so long as he documented all the assumptions that he made. After a couple of weeks, he supplied his solution. “And where are your assumptions?” I asked. “Oh, I didn’t make any!” he replied.
I pointed to a number of the assumptions in his solution and said “What about this – and this?” “They are not assumptions” he repied indignantly, “they are the results of my years of experience!”
And that, in a nutshell, is why assumptions are so valuable – and, at the same time, so dangerous. Our years of experience enables us to take shortcuts to get the work done but only when doing things the way we always have. When change comes, doing – and thinking – ‘the way we always have’, stops being a shortcut, and becomes a fast track to disaster.
When change comes, we need to rethink our assumptions but years of conditioning makes this very hard, if not impossible.
To succeed in a changing world, we must learn to question assumptions.
Question: But how?