How I Learned: The Surprising Danger of Making Assumptions

Composite by Mariya Pylayev
My first career did not begin auspiciously. After generations when a mere college degree was applauded, MBAs had abruptly become all the rage. The cool kids were now freshly B-school'd, devoured Sun Tzu, and spoke only MBA. The rest of us gamely tried to squeeze into this box, struggling to innovate and solve business problems according to formula.

It wasn't that the B-School tribe was smarter. They simply had well-defined tools, while we, the MBA-less, were convinced we were also tool-less.

Fast forward to my second career, this one dominated by technology.

Now, the ruling tribe had data-driven tools. They were scientists. Was I voted off the island?Not a chance. But only because by this point in my career path, I'd gained enough confidence to realize that my creative style of zigging while the quant ninjas were zagging was not only valuable but necessary. I'd learned that a one size fits all formulaic approach to solving business problems tends to be based on dangerous assumptions, Sacred Cows, and narrow, risk-averse thinking. As I've proclaimed over the course of moderating 1,237 focus groups, "There's no one right answer." I tell my clients: "There are lots of right answers."

In fact, scarcity is a sure solutions killer. If your company's team thinks there's only one viable idea, they'll hang on to it for dear life, whether it's a dud or not. But when the team comes from a feeling of confident abundance; positive the problem will be handled, no matter what, the path magically smooths out.

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Creating A Problem-Solving Culture

So how do you get gliding down that productive path? You develop and support a culture where creative problem solving can flourish. Organizations often start by hiring a third party resource, a researcher, or an Innovation Catalyst like me.

First step? Begin by designing an environment that's open, risk-free, encourages trust, debate and dialog, motivates the passionate, and celebrates individuality as well as collaboration. I'd explain the difference between brainstorming, visioning, and detail a list of other methodologies. I'd mention the significance of play. And the peril of Sheldonian logic. Just for starters.

I'd also strongly advise reading Eric Ries' Lean Startup. Here in Silicon Valley, one of the hottest trends in the innovation space is this phenomenon that's revolutionizing decision-making with "Fail Early" and MVP (Minimum Viable Product) methodologies. Ries' uber-pragmatic principles help entrepreneurs get key answers faster, radically reducing wasted time, energy and money. It's new product development on steroids.

What's in your CPS Toolkit?

Digital tools to stimulate breakthroughs in creativity are launching virtually every day. Some of them are specifically developed for enhancing creative problem-solving; others are general tools that work wonders to clear out the rusty clogs in the brain. I've clicked over to a few of them while writing this article. I got stuck on that early MBA-speak and I made a Wordle to refresh my memory of the suits mumbling micro-this and macro-that.


Anyone who's worked with me will not be surprised Pinterest tops my list of favorite idea-generators. We Trained Brains have long loved projective techniques for amplifying self-expression and hidden emotion. Pinterest's platform does that digitally 24/7, collecting hopes, dreams and wishes from around the world. The site is a continually surprising scrapbook of humanity in all its nitty gritty glory. It's really a visual Magic 8 ball.

Mind Mapping

This tried-and-true problem solving technique created by Tony Buzan is still powerful via digital.


Break through your blocks with the help of this creative community's array of colorful DIY palettes, colors, and trends.


Although it's getting to be something of a digital dinosaur, making a Wordle still tweaks my thinking and always shows me something I hadn't noticed before.


The world's creative rockstars live on this portfolio site. Their energy pops off the pages.

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Tipping the Sacred Cows

Here's what I wish I'd realized back in the dawn of my career. Employers liked me, they really liked me. The smart ones valued my quirkiness, my ability to connect dots where there were none, to dream up new words, recognize patterns, and keep a perpetual Beginner's Mind. They knew this type of off-kilter perspective was critical to business success.

The real problem was that I didn't get it.

I was so intimidated by the Sacred Cows in MBA suits that I didn't do what usually came naturally to me: question my assumptions. Instead of going ballistic on the accepted wisdom, I stifled my own inner innovator. At meetings with the executive mucky-mucks, I'd sit there in silence and wonder why no one else seemed to think their ideas were dreadful. It was so clear to me. Yet the MBAs reigned supreme. How could I, the newbie, possibly know better?

It took tipping a few Sacred Cows -- from MBAs to Data Gurus -- for me to fully understand how my assumptions were holding me back.

Got a Sacred Cow of your own? Get mooving.

Photo source: Getty Images

Check out more quotes on the importance of problem-solving skills here.
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