Validating Assumptions

Melinda Jacobs
Mar 22, 2020 · 7 min read

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” — Isaac Asimov

We all make assumptions on a daily basis. They’re our shortcuts, our brain’s way of saving energy, to navigating and acting within the world around us. These predications are arguably a necessity, but they also have the potential to hold us back and limit us, both in our personal lives and our businesses.

Per textbook definition, assumptions are “things that are accepted as true or certain to happen, without proof”. We don’t often realize when we’re making them, because our brains are masters at convincing us that the pattern we’ve detected or are applying is fact. It does this to avoid extra analysis because assessing uncertain situations costs our brains energy.

When we unknowingly base our actions on false assumptions we can end up spending a lot of time and energy moving in directions that actually move us further away from our needs and goals than closer. This is why it’s important to take the time to reflect on, and validate, your assumptions.

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Don’t be afraid of closing doors by being wrong, see it as minimizing the risk of missing opportunities.

It’s essential when building a business to constantly challenge and validate your assumptions about the problem your business is solving. If you don’t you run the risk of closing doors to success. Wrong assumptions, although they can feel safe, can dramatically limit progress, while the truth, even if intimidating or disappointing, can set you free to pursue real opportunities. Take this example:

“Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.” — Dr. Dionysius Lardner, 1830

Clearly, this isn’t the case, but had no one ever challenged this assumption we wouldn’t have developed the technology that allows us to travel from place to place at speeds over 400 km an hour.

In addition to your assumptions being wrong from the get go, they can also become wrong over time. New technological advancements, commoditization, or other changes in the world can influence the current validity of your assumptions. Constantly be challenging your assumptions, it’s not just a process to do at the very start.

Make it your main job to constantly ask why and how questions throughout the lifespan of your business.

Your assumptions should be grounded in your problem.

Many businesses get lost trying to adapt their problem to the solution or idea they fell in love with, instead of validating what the problem is in the first place. The problem is the heart of your business, the solution is only a tool to help you resolve the problem for your customer. If the problem doesn’t exist your solution has no reason to exist, there’s no real need in the market and you’re going to struggling to get a paying customer. Remember: the problem is never the lack of a solution.

To align on and make sure you’re aware of your problem, I suggest writing or reviewing your Problem Statement. A Problem Statement is a short, clear explanation about the problem or issue that needs to be addressed. Start by thinking about the problem you are trying to solve and what you think causes it. Then think about who you think you are trying to solve it for. And finally, think about why it’s important you solve this problem. Why will this provide value? Write this all down. If you need help, I like this approach to creating a problem statement canvas and also this article explaining the 5 whys.

It’s crucial to make sure your problem is clear, and that everyone in your team understands it. It will be very difficult to build on a rocky foundation. Your Problem Statement should be your motivation and inspiration for moving forward. It must make you curious to ask questions, and wonder why things are the way they are, or if they are that way in the first place.

Write down then every assumption you are making, every question you have, about this Problem Statement.

Here’s a few questions to get you started:

  • What do we believe the problem is?
  • Why do we believe this problem exists?
  • What specific group is this is a problem for?
  • Why is this a problem for this specific group?
  • Is [this] how our market or customer behaves?
  • How is our customer currently solving this problem?
  • What motivates our customer?
  • Is [this] is feasible for us to develop, build, or solve?
  • Why are we the best people to solve this problem?

The more curious you are about your assumed problem the further you will be able to take your business with the lessons you have learned by exploring it.

Tip: Feeling overwhelmed? If you’re not sure where to start with a prediction, it could be a chain of assumptions you’ve grouped into one. Try and break down the assumption into smaller pieces that are easier to tackle (keep asking why!). Pay attention to how the assumptions relate to each other, if they are independent or dependent on each other.

It might be tempting to try and tackle multiple problems all at once, but this will cause more problems than it fixes. It is essential to have focus. You need to be able to be specific and selective, because you need to be able to prioritize decisions. If you can’t prioritize you’re going to get stuck later on in the process trying to decide between equivalent, yet completely different, paths.

Just because you focus on one problem doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t end up solving other problems, it just means it is not your priority.

Deciding what’s important to validate.

So you have a better grasp on your assumptions, and you’re excited to conduct research, run experiments, and validate them. It’s time to pick your starting point. Yes, validating your predictions is crucial, but you don’t need to validate literally every single assumption you have. You can’t, honestly. The goal here is to be mindful of what you decide to explore and what you don’t but prioritize exploring what adds the most value. I like to look at three factors to make this decision: confidence, risk, and value.

Confidence: The goal here is to check in realistically on how confident you are in the knowledge you’ve gathered so far to come up with this assumption. Have you done the legwork? Can you explain why you are confident? Rank this on a scale of low to high.

Risk: It’s important to assess how risky it would be to continue to operate based on this assumption. How much impact would this have on your business’ processes if it was wrong? Rank this on a scale of low to high.

Value: How close is the assumption to the core value of your business? The closer the assumption is to the core, the problem, the pain, the need, the value, the behavior — the more important it is to validate it before moving forward. Rank this on a scale of low to high.

Take the assumptions that you have the least confidence on (low), have the highest risk (high), and contribute the most value (high). These are the ones to test first.

Tip: I also think about feasibility and effort. Even if the problem exists, it may not be feasible to solve. Even if you have a question or assumption, it may not be feasible to prove. Again, the goal here is to be mindful, and aware of your assumptions, not to completely throw out anything you haven’t validated. There’s usually always a way to at least partially validate an assumption, it just may come down to a matter of effort you are willing to spend (the more value it would add, the more effort it is worth in most cases).

Talking or interacting with actual people is the best way to validate.

Where did you get your expectations about your customers’ pains, motivations, and behaviors? If the answer isn’t, directly or indirectly, from them, then it’s probably not validated. The best way to validate any assumptions about your problem is to talk to, or interact with, real people. It’s never to early to start approaching potential customers even if it can feel vulnerable to approach them without all the answers.

Be sure not to get stuck either in defining too large of a market. Your goal, especially at the beginning, isn’t to try to solve a problem that applies to everyone. Get specific. Who do you think is really going to need this problem solved for them? Why do you think they need this problem solved so badly? Why does the problem occur more for them? What are the specific characteristics that define this target group? Again, the more specific you are the easier it will be to prioritize and make decisions.

Don’t get stuck building full solutions, always ask yourself what’s the more effective, quickest, cheapest way to know if you’re on the right track. In the future I’ll take a look at the many ways you can run experiments, using approaches like MVPs (Minimal Viable Products), and how to make sense of these results.

A contribution to the Create Converge project which is supported by the European Union North Sea Region Programme.

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Melinda Jacobs

Written by

Geek interested in organization psychology, game theory, & the impact of technology. 🏳️‍🌈

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +756K people. Follow to join our community.

Melinda Jacobs

Written by

Geek interested in organization psychology, game theory, & the impact of technology. 🏳️‍🌈

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +756K people. Follow to join our community.

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