Why “Assuming” Might be Your Most Dangerous Daily Habit
And this is not an exaggeration, it’s a fact.
As insignificant and meaningless some assumptions may be, others can change the course of your life. And I’ve witnessed it first hand.
I run an ecommerce conversion optimization agency, where at the end of the day, our goal is to get rid of assumptions a company may have about its website, and instead use data to create hypotheses that we’ll seek to validate (or invalidate).
In other words, my job is to manage assumptions made by marketers, managers, designers — and a whole lot of people.
We make sure those assumptions don’t lead to mistakes for the companies we work with. Revenue-wise, profit-wise, or usability-wise.
Assumptions are dangerous in many spectrums. From work, business to your personal life…
How exactly? I’ll get to it shortly. But first, understand that even as I’m writing this, I’m not perfect with managing assumptions either.
Just like you, I make assumptions daily. Most of them, probably subconsciously. I’m not sure it’s even realistic to try to erase all of the smallest assumptions we make daily, the ones that have little to no impact on our lives…
But awareness is the first step to avoiding assumptions that could cost us big.
It’s why I’m writing this, and it’s why “Never Assume” is one of my top core values.
Once we’re aware and consciously seeking to get rid of assumptions in our daily lives, we get to keep control of situations, we avoid communication problems, and ultimately, we drastically reduce the mistakes made by ourselves and others.
How assumptions killed my first 3 companies…
Assuming is one of an entrepreneur’s top mistakes. Memorize this!
And I wasn’t an exception.
When I launched my first tech company, about 6 years ago, I was thinking like a typical first-time entrepreneur:
“I’ve got this great business idea, now let’s build it”
Even right at the start, with just one quick thought I had already made numerous mistakes:
- I assumed it was “truly” a great idea, and that it was better than others. Problem is: “ideas are like assholes, everybody’s got ’em” — unknown.
- I assumed that people would want to use my product and that they would flock to it once it would launch.
The cost of these assumptions? Thousands of lost dollars, countless hours, and a failed company.
By making the two assumptions above, I had submerged myself into a pool of bias. Those pools are hard, if not impossible to get yourself out of.
What I have done instead, was validate and pre-sell the idea to potential customers, long before thinking about building the company and product. I just assumed it would all *magically* work out and that my assumptions would be true…
I repeated this mistake at varying degrees for at least 2 more companies. From falsely assuming who was my ideal customer, falsely assuming people would understand the value of my product and to falsely assuming people would want the product. It hurt, and cost me a company every time.
Marketers, founders, product managers and designers are hurting their companies too (without even realizing it)…
- They assume redesigning their website will increase their sales
- They assume a marketing campaign that’s got more resources invested in will work better than one without as much
- They assume users will want that new feature the company’s been working on forever
- They assume they know their customers well
- They assume they know why people are buying (or why they aren’t)
- They assume what works for a competitor will work for them
- And I could go on and on…
The point is, every day, it’s become normal for employees to make assumptions about their work. And the dangerous part: they don’t even know they’re assuming — and the dangers it causes.
For example, let’s take the simple assumptions that redesigning a product page, a checkout page, or a whole website - will increase sales.
If followed through, these initiatives would massively eat into employees time, and the cost in terms resources required could be huge.
Now imagine spending 6 months and hundreds of thousands of dollars redesigning the website… and then seeing it flop, where sales falls 26% with the new site.
Wouldn’t this massively suck? It would. And it would’ve all started with one, quick unvalidated assumption.
The sad part is — this is an example I hear about almost daily. Multiply the loss with the loss brought in by other assumptions? Your company is losing tons of money. Again, all because of assumptions.
Assumptions made in your personal life can also lead to undesirable outcomes…
Have you ever tried to explain something so seemingly simple, to someone and they just don’t understand it no matter what?
It can be frustrating, sure. But chances are you assumed they knew more about the topic than they actually did.
The right approach would’ve been to ask a few questions beforehand to gauge your audience’s level of knowledge on the topic. THEN you give your explanation, shaping the conversation around their knowledge.
Sales people and entrepreneurs, take note.
On the other hand, if you’ve even sent a well-meaning text message to someone who interpreted it badly, or took it as an insult, you may have assumed they would read it and interpret it the same way you do.
Reading it in different tones, thinking of possible cultural contexts, or simply looking at how it could be interpreted without proper context, could have helped avoid this mistake.
Don’t assume people know what you mean. Don’t fall into the curse of knowledge and assume people know as much as you do about a topic. And definitely don’t assume what you say will be understood the same way in a different context.
If you’re not careful with assumptions, you might end up in way more drama and confusion than you’ve ever hoped for.
Assumptions are the source of most communication problems. “Oh, I thought you knew what I meant…”
The few quick tricks that will help you shield yourself against assumptions
- During key communications, repeat yourself 3 times, ask questions
If you’ve got specific tasks to delegate, or precise instructions to give to someone. Don’t assume they’ll understand everything from the get go.
Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself to make sure your instructions are clear, and most importantly, after a conversation ask the person what they understood.
This is key. After all, they might have understood something completely different, and you wouldn’t want to find out 2 weeks later when it’s too late. Right?
2. Use post-it notes, seriously.
I might be an exception here, but I personally hate having post-it notes on my desk. It makes it feel cluttered. That being said, I still use them for key reminders I always want to have in front of me.
One post-it staring at me right now is Mel Robbins’ 5 Second Rule (which I highly recommend).
The second being “Assumptions?” Having a reminder in front of you with “Assumptions?” written on it will make you question all day long — whether you’re on the phone or writing an email - Am I assuming things I shouldn’t?
3. Make “Validation” a habit
If you assume, you should seek to validate. Remember how I killed my first few companies by NOT validating my assumptions? Validating would’ve changed everything.
If you’re making changes to your website, even if you think (aka assume) it’s an improvement, you should probably A/B test.
If you’ve got a business idea, are launching a new business, or releasing a new feature or product, you should seek to validate the need in the market. Use a Lean Canvas, build an MVP, pre-sell, build and audience, and talk to your customers.
There might not be any magical wizardry involved in these few tips. But implement them into your life, and I promise you you’ll see a difference.
If you’re an entrepreneur, go one step further and make it a company value, or find a way for your team to fully understand why assumptions should be avoided.
The Bottom Line
By validating assumptions made by ecommerce companies we’ve worked with, we’ve saved them millions of dollars in lost revenue (and in return, made them millions more).
By making “Never Assume” a core company value, we’ve drastically reduced communication problems. Projects flow, and people make sure they have the clarity they need before spending hours working on the wrong things.
And by seeking to avoid assumptions in your every day life, you can too, improve your quality of life.