15 Assumptions Leaders Should Reconsider

Assumptions are a fundamental part of how people work and communicate. But as the world changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and new ways of thinking about work and society, assumptions need to be acknowledged and, in some cases, changed.

“Assumptions are neither bad nor good. They are important,” said MIT senior lecturer Sloan. said during a recent webinar hosted by MIT Sloan Management Review. “We just need to know they are there. And we have to know when to use them, we have to know when to question them and when to think differently about them.

In the workplace, assumptions can be valuable because they align people with a common point of view and create a shared language and mode of decision-making, Westerman said. But they can also reinforce unconscious biases and force conformity, and cause people to reject innovation.

To begin, leaders need to reconsider the following assumptions about what customers want, how employees work, and how organizations can drive change and innovation.

5 assumptions about what customers want

1. Customers appreciate human contact. The pandemic has accelerated “impersonal” services such as curbside pickups and telehealth appointments, and shown that some customers prefer the speed and ease of self-service. “The key point is that customers really want personalized service, but they may not want it from a person,” said Westerman, who is also a senior researcher for workforce learning at the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab at MIT. If your business model depends on the human touch, is it really better for customers or is it just the way things have always been done?

2. In person is better than digital. In some cases, the digital experience may be the same or even better than in person. Digital offerings, such as telehealth appointments or conferences that require no travel, are often more convenient. “You want to understand here what the right combination of digital and physical is,” he said.

3. People won’t pay full price for a digital version of a product and service. Some people may have thought that they would never pay the price of a cinema ticket for a movie they watch at home. But it’s nice to be able to pause a movie and watch it in sweatpants. Convenience has value, Westerman said.

4. Service restrictions during a pandemic are only temporary. The suspension of daily cleaning services and free breakfasts at hotels was not a passing fad, Westerman said. Some conveniences are not missing and companies are likely to re-examine them before taking them back.

5. The old way was the right one. “You should ask why, all the time,” Westerman said.

5 assumptions about employees

6. If employees aren’t in the office, they aren’t productive. The pandemic has shown that’s not true, Westerman said, though it may vary by person or job.

7. Companies need to locate talent. Remote work has has made it possible to work from anywhere, and companies need to rethink their localization strategies accordingly, Westerman said.

8. The same rules should apply to everyone. One rule for everyone is important in some cases, such as regulatory compliance, but people have different needs. The pandemic has shown the value of giving people leeway to meet their obligations, Westerman said.

9. When employees work for you, they don’t work for anyone else. If an employee becomes less productive, employers might wonder if they need help becoming more productive or if they’re working on a side job, Westerman said. To avoid this, focus on preparing people to be as productive and energetic as possible at work.

10. Employees will work as they are told. Today, employees have a lot of freedom and opportunities and think a lot about what they want from their job. “We need to think about how employees want to work, not how we want them to work,” he said.

5 assumptions about change management in organizations

11. Question your guiding principles. Many people either believe that the early movers win, the fast followers win, or the slow and steady wins the race. But think about under which conditions each of these is true and under which conditions each is not true, Westerman said. The applicability of these elements depends on the context and may vary by product, region and type of customer.

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12. Digital transformation is a technological challenge. People tend to think that machine learning, sensors, and technology enable change to happen. “Technology isn’t the hardest part, the hardest part is changing your business to make it work,” Westerman said, calling it his “first law of innovation.” Digital transformation is everyone’s business, not just the technical department.

13. Digital is fast and computer unit is slow. Digital initiatives should not be separated from the organization’s IT department. Everything that ends up reaching customers has to be tied to the organization and its processes, Westerman said.

14. “Regulators will never let us do this.” This assumption stops innovation – no one wants to fight regulators. But the pandemic proved that wrong, as doctors treated patients online despite privacy concerns, and vaccines were created and approved at unprecedented speed. Get regulators in early so they aren’t surprised and work closely with them, Westerman said.

15. You can tell the difference between dumb ideas and good ones. Managers often think they know the difference, but “dumb” ideas are often mislabeled. Organizations are good at teaching new employees to shut up and stop asking questions, but it’s good to listen to them – why are things done a certain way? Is there a better option? It’s a good idea to be careful, especially if a certain question comes up repeatedly.

Read next: Digital transformation has evolved. Here’s what’s new.

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