Prioritize Learning: Be willing to pause, examine, and change our assumptions
Part 6 in "Explore Assumptions" series
Much of what I’ve learned about the power of assumptions comes from facilitating collaboration among people from diverse professional and personal backgrounds in a cross-sector fellowship I created.
The first stage of the fellowship was called “Exploration” because the fellows interviewed people working in a wide range of fields to learn about their community. After this stage came the Ideation stage, where the teams had to start thinking about what they could build together in the remaining time. Creation took up the last few months of the fellowship when they had to make their plan into a reality.
In the monthly meetings with all three teams in one cohort, I noticed that two of the teams were bursting with ideas of what they wanted to work on and how they were going to do it. The third team was much slower to develop in the process. The team was still unclear about their actual project, even halfway through the program. In their own weekly team meetings, they acknowledged they felt “behind.”
And yet in the final month, they showed the most solidarity as a team and were proudest of what they accomplished. They surprised the two other teams, both of which faced major disruptions in their plans.
In retrospect, this team described themselves as the tortoise in the race with the rabbit. No one, not even themselves, assumed they'd have such a strong finish.
In the previous essays, I illustrated what can be learned when individuals explore socially unacceptable assumptions. The process of doing so strengthens vulnerability and self-awareness at the individual level. At the interpersonal level, exploring their assumptions helped build trust and empathy.
Socially acceptable assumptions often revolve around how we assume we should approach our work and how we define accomplishments.
The lessons in the earlier essays have been intellectual exercises that mainly impact how people feel about their assumptions. The lessons I'll share here demonstrate the impact of unpacking assumptions on a team's ability to collaborate. They're based on guiding 90 fellows across 15 teams to attempt to collaborate under highly ambiguous circumstances with almost no material resources.
Acknowledge the “helpful” assumptions
Ask Yourself: Which assumptions have benefited and served you? Under what circumstances?
Although "assumptions" are usually considered harmful, we invoke them all the time at work. In the professional setting, we refer to assumptions as “experience” or even “institutional knowledge”. The longer we work in any one field or function, the more assumptions we build-up, which helps us get faster at completing our tasks and anticipating interactions with others.
There are assumptions people make about doing the work, like the best way to approach an accounting problem or develop a marketing plan. Employers often select candidates who develop assumptions that allow them to be faster at their job. The fellows came from a diverse range of professional backgrounds, and they carried these assumptions based on years of work experience with them.
Whenever we initiated a new cohort of fellows, we acknowledged the rich experiences they brought with them. We invited people to tap into those experiences and offer different interpretations and perspectives so that fellows could learn from one another, especially during the Exploration stage, when they share what they heard from their community interviews.
The "tortoise" team certainly had a rich range of experiences. There was a 50-year gap between the youngest and oldest members. The team included a nonprofit founder, a software engineer, and a fundraiser.
During the Exploration stage, fellows would often hear information from interviewees that challenged personal assumptions that helped them in the past. Sometimes, they reacted with delight in learning something new. Other times they felt deep skepticism.
Some were frustrated by the Exploration stage interviews. They were used to gathering information to validate or invalidate whatever they were working toward. Since they didn't know what they were working toward yet, it could feel slow and unproductive.
In the beginning, the tortoise team hesitated to share and even denied having assumptions. By the end of the program, they became much more comfortable exploring their assumptions with one another. The tortoise team enjoyed the Exploration interviews more than the other teams, and most teams I’ve ever worked with. They appreciated learning, even if it meant being wrong.
Perhaps you hadn't been thinking about all the information you accept as the truth, developed from your experience, as assumptions. That's what they are. You’ve held on to them because they benefited you.
Pause assumptions to experiment
Ask Yourself: Have you ever paused the assumptions that have long served you to try something new?
During the ideation stage, many fellows want to get clarity on what they'll be working on, so they start to lean into the assumptions that have helped them throughout their careers. It might sound like, “No, we shouldn't do that. I've tried that and it won't work," or "I know how to do this, so let's try that."
This often happens in the workplace.
When asked to approach a challenge, many people proudly invoke their past experience and call on work models that they have used in the past that have been successful. The flip side is an overreliance on assuming we can apply the same approach to different projects. This can lead to failures and mistakes as well as mediocre work. Sometimes our assumptions can prevent us from innovating.
While we acknowledged the skills and experiences the individuals brought, we invited them to explore trying new skills so that they would not invoke their assumptions that might actually stifle their individual growth.
We asked them to recognize and then pause the assumptions that had served them elsewhere.
They were encouraged to intentionally try new skills, to use the fellowship to take risks and to challenge their assumptions of what they believe they know.
Some fellows thoroughly embraced this. One food services manager attributed the start of his career interest in technology to the fellowship. A few members of a team learned how to do video production because of the team project they chose. Most fellows tried, though many reverted to tapping into existing skills.
At the beginning of the program, we asked all team members to write down new skills they want to learn and to remind each other of those goals once they got into the Ideation phase of the fellowship. Ideally, the team would come up with a project that would enable them to learn new skills.
Of all the teams I've ever worked with, the tortoise team made the most effort to support each other in learning new skills. They gently reminded each other "you wanted to practice public speaking" and "remember you said you want to do more management and organizing” and "this would be an opportunity to do more community outreach, like you said you wanted." Part of the reason it took them so long to come up with a project plan was their commitment to each other's development.
Any given team’s overall willingness to try something new often depended on having at least a few willing individuals who would inspire the others to take risks. Curiosity is contagious.
Sometimes you have to pause your assumptions to make space for new experiences. This willingness to take risks has ripple effects. Your willingness to learn can inspire others to try something new too.
Note that I'm not asking people to abandon tapping into assumptions that have served you for so long. I’m suggesting taking a temporary break, every now and then, or in some parts of your life. It can free you to explore new areas.
Reframe your assumptions around success
Ask Yourself: What do you assume success looks like?
Assumptions around success are often socially acceptable to share. We might even assume that success means the same thing to others as it does to us.
Having assumptions around what success looks like can give us a sense of purpose, a goal to drive toward. It can also lead to a great sense of disappointment when we feel whatever happened fell short of that vision of success. The most satisfied fellows are the ones who change their assumptions about success.
The tortoise team was proud of what they accomplished. Some members had a fixed idea that changed. Their project brought together different leaders who worked on workforce training for those who were formerly incarcerated. And even though only a few of their target audience showed up at their events, the ones who did were positively impacted.
Considering the time constraints and limited resources, many of the fellows on other teams were proud of what they created. That said, there could be a stark range of feelings on the same team, depending on people's assumptions of what success looks like. For most fellows, they saw that they had made something from nothing. They realized they brought together people who might not otherwise come together, and/or had highlighted an issue many people didn’t know about.
For some fellows, success looked like having touched the most people with as little effort as possible. Thus, they felt great disappointment when their project only reached a few dozen people at most.
I saw some people on the same team who were proud and others disappointed. It shows how different people can interpret the same outcome differently, because their idea of success fundamentally differed.
Ask yourself: How do your assumptions about success influence your work with others?
An individual can inspire others to share their assumptions when they reveal theirs first. We can spark rich conversations using this approach. A team can redefine success for themselves and their group.
Instead of a fixed idea of accomplishment, we have a choice to prioritize learning. The former requires sharing a singular standard, the latter allows for different interpretations of success to co-exist.