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#638: It's What You Know That Just Ain't So

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Updated: Thursday, August 25, 2011
I like the comment attributed to Will Rogers about "It's not what you don't know that's the problem, it's what you know that just ain't so." Even though we are human, getting trapped in such assumptions is particularly dangerous for consultants. How can we avoid making these mistakes?

It may be the consultants are prone to being misled because of the nature of their work. We are expected to take incomplete and often confusing information and make sense of it, then use that information to chart a course for our clients. We often know of similar circumstances but, unless we have been working with a particular client for a while, are often new to the organization.

The nature of our work compels us to "jump to conclusions," even though we usually consider that a good thing. Why do we jump to the "wrong" conclusions, even after a good analysis? You are referring to a number of well documented biases that affect us in decision making. The most potent is confirmation bias, where a piece of information we have seems to comfortably fit into the "model" we have constructed. This serves to strengthen our conviction that we are on the right solution path (and our assumption that we are indeed smart consultants).

A number of other biases, recency bias (overweighting the last piece of information we received), anchoring (overweighting initial information), and vividness bias (overweighting the most stimulating information) can all lead to assuming we are right when we could be really wrong. The antidote to this is to constantly challenge your working model of how you see a client's situation and to become a student of over confidence.

Tip: Snopes.com lists a number of rumors that many people "know" to be true that just aren't. These persist because they are interesting, amusing or curious - and are either hard to verify or just not worth the effort. Find some of these rumors or urban legends (there are websites with plenty of these as well) you might believe and consider why you believe them. This might refresh your inner skeptic and help you avoid jumping to the wrong conclusion in your next engagement.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  advice  analysis  assumptions  consulting process  diagnosis  interpretation  learning  market research  professional development 

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Mary Adams CMC says...
Posted Thursday, August 25, 2011
Mark - I learned this lesson the hard way in my very first consulting assignment when I moved to an internal consulting role reporting to the president of our bank-owned finance company. There was an assumption widely held about the superior margins that came from taking a lead role in a transaction. For the first month I worked on the assignment, I failed to question that assumption. When I went looking for research to bolster our report (backwards, I know), I found that the assumption was wrong. This information gap in the market actually created a market opportunity for our company. But I almost missed it.

Ever since then, I try to question basic assumptions (but it's never easy). I often tell this story to prospects and explain that "expert" can be a dangerous label when it takes away your permission to ask stupid questions (because questions about the status quo often sound stupid to those holding the assumptions). I tell them that I like to ask stupid questions. Thanks for your continuing great thoughts! Mary
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