Too often, businesses are undermined by their own assumptions. Leaders understand a concept or idea in the context of their own cultural and environmental experience, without realizing that their perceptions are based on the opinion of one person. This is problematic, even if they themselves fit the profile of their target audience.

When it comes to business design, this instinct can be the difference between business model success and failure. Business leaders and designers must ensure they don’t hold on too tightly to their preconceived notions of what will or won’t work. By opening their minds up to the possibility of being wrong, companies can view problems in a truly objective manner and dive deep to find their solutions.

Why is it so hard to challenge assumptions?

Thinking objectively is virtually impossible for humans. We all have our own individual personalities, experiences, and backgrounds that shape our worldview. However, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to transcend these when we can and shed our confirmation bias.

Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, argues that cognitive bias can derail a decision-making process and lead to false judgments. In particular, Kahneman is concerned by overconfidence -- a quality often found in business leaders who are sure their product is the best thing out there. Humans are not inherently rational creatures, so we have to make sure we’re aware of our biases, where they come from, and how to mitigate their often destructive effects.

In many fast-paced business environments, employees can be reluctant to ask questions that might result in more work, should they get answers they weren’t expecting. However, asking open-ended questions that stress the Why and the How is necessary to reflect on decisions and reveal what’s really behind business successes and failures.

Business design challenges assumptions head-on

At the foundation of good business design is a team of people that are committed to asking questions and challenging assumptions. This is evident in a number of Design Thinking ideation techniques, such as Challenging Orthodoxies, Worst Possible Idea, and SCAMPER - all of which serve to help generate out-of-the-box ideas by questioning the status quo. These techniques allow decision-makers to stand back and look at the bigger picture, including issues that might have previously been overlooked.

This doesn’t only apply to business designers, but also to team members across the board. From engineers to business leaders, challenging assumptions through design thinking allows them to focus more strongly on their users, the needs of those users, and the insights derived from them to power a successful business model.

Fail fast and try again

Undoubtedly, asking so many questions and challenging orthodoxies will result in the uncovering of certain failures. However, this is crucial to paving the path to progress, as encountering failures and moving quickly past them is the only way to mitigate downfalls which may lie ahead.

Yet while businesses are testing their assumptions, it’s important to move fast and be prepared to leave behind unsuccessful prototypes, even if they were the product of a lot of work. In design thinking, the most common way of doing this is using the Business Model Canvas, which helps companies “design, challenge, invent, and pivot their business model.”

After creating a business model prototype, it’s paramount for companies to get feedback from their potential clients about their ideas, as well as collect data on them. Qualitative and quantitative data go hand-in-hand when getting answers to difficult and unorthodox questions. If none of these answers are proving anyone wrong, then those asking the questions simply aren’t doing enough.

Think twice

Rapid prototyping encourages people to accept and even embrace failure, which ultimately results in a faster track to innovative breakthroughs. By accepting their mistakes and going back to the drawing board, business leaders and designers improve and develop every part of the prototype that previously wasn’t up to scratch.

For example, Airbnb managed to avoid going bankrupt by challenging its widely-held assumption that everything it did had to be scalable. As a data-driven company, Airbnb was trying to solve all of its problems with lines of code that applied for both just one customer or 10,000.

However, upon realizing that their 40 NYC listings weren’t getting booked because the photos weren’t up to scratch, the Airbnb team adopted a non-scalable and non-data-backed solution of simply flying to New York and spending some time taking high-resolution photos of the listings. A week after they updated the photos, their weekly revenue had doubled. Challenging this pre-existing assumption was a “turning point for the company,” according to co-founder Joel Gebbia.

Challenging assumptions to drive successful business design means leaving bias and egos at the door, which is often easier said than done in fast-moving corporate environments. However, businesses must know that the only way to uncover these necessary truths is by constantly asking questions that may have difficult answers. By being ready to be wrong, businesses ensure no stone is left unturned on the path to building desirable, viable, and feasible products.


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