To assume makes an ass of you and me

There is a saying that I have heard on numerous occasions, that being “to assume makes an ass out of you and me”. Over the last few weeks, I have been surprised by just how many times that the topic of assumptions and the impact they have has come up in conversation. Upholding the widely held adage of ‘pinch with pride’, it seemed to be a prime topic for a blog post.

My interest was first raised a couple of weeks when I did a post, Elephant… How do you eat yours? and received a comment about how the elephant might respond to being eaten. Of course, I had assumed that the elephant was an ex-pachyderm, dead, pushing up the daisies (I love Monty Python!) and that anybody reading the post would assume likewise. Since then, my subconcious has been in overdrive and I have picked up on so many examples of assumptions being made; some are quite harmless and had no impact, some had the potential to have caused major issues.

So, about what do we make assumptions? Here are a few that I thought of, we assume that
People understand our communications or message
Have the same perceptual framework
Know what needs to be done
Know how to do it
Understand the end product required
Know and understand the context or background to something
Have the right knowledge
Have the right skills
Have the right tools
Have had a certain level of training or experience
That an electronic communication (email) made it through

The list could go on…

When these assumptions are made and there is no clarification of them, things can and do go wrong. Here are some examples from my own experience

1. A Manager sent an e-mail to his direct reports asking for some urgent work to be done, despite the urgency he did not check that they’d received it or that they understood it. Now at the time in question (company were going through a series of IT system transitions), many could not get into their email accounts. At a meeting a couple of hours later the request was mentioned, of course nothing had happened in the intervening time; Oops! Now if that meeting not happened, things could have got even more messy than they did. As it was by some extraordinary effort the situation was salvaged.

2. At a recent training event the course leaders assumed that all of the attendees were at a certain standard and had received training on certain skills/concepts. Having launched into two sets of presentations, it became abundantly clear that there was quite a disparate group of skills sets in the rooms. You could literally see people switching off and losing confidence.

There are many others that I could call upon. However, they would only serve to labour the point.

When you are making assumptions about something, these need to be tested. You have to ask questions about them, communicate them, listen and confirm to ensure that those involved have the necessary information, skills, understanding. In not doing so, you leave yourself wide open to misunderstanding, non-delivery, lost confidence and ultimately failure.

I have always liked the following saying and I think it sits well here.

There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. (assumption)
Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.
Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job.
Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. (assumption)
It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.