When you assume...

You know the rest but there is more.



1/10/20243 min read

Pre-preamble: When I had the idea for this post last week, I thought it would be a quick effort. As I started, it quickly evolved into many different, interesting directions. So far, it looks like it will be three parts but I remember the last time I had a three part post, it ended up as five, so no promises other than this is part 1 and there will be more.

Preamble: A few years ago, an engineering coop, on his last day, asked me for some general engineering career advice. I don’t remember what I told him but my recollection is that it was rather underwhelming. I now have something to use in case that happens in the future. OK, it still is not life changing, but I think it is good advice for all, and not just young engineers.

You have surely heard the saying about what happens when you assume. (That is why I only presume.😉)¹ It is a cute saying with some truth to it but definitely not universally true. We make assumptions very frequently and I would argue that they are necessary to get through the day and accomplish anything.² For instance, you assume those cars on the cross street are going to stop at the red light, but you keep an eye out just in case.

Close cousins to assumptions are biases and narratives, or the fact that we all have blinders on to some extent that prevent us from seeing things in a different way. When working on projects, I have said many times, it is amazing how quickly we get set on a direction and develop some industrial strength blinders. One cause of those blinders is the various assumptions we make as we start. Some are consciously made with good reason, some are not consciously made, and maybe the worst are the ones that are consciously made with bad reasons.

So what to do? Challenge the assumptions. Are they the right assumptions? Were they made for the right reason? If you are like me, right now you are saying that I can’t challenge assumptions until I know what they are. Bingo. That is the second part of the advice. Know that you are always working under some set of assumptions, many unknown, and then try to recognize what they are. I like to believe I am better than average at doing those two things (pat on back). I have several times considered having regularly scheduled assumption checks or challenges. Maybe they should be a part of a design review checklist or in a product development process. Alas, I have never done that (slap on wrist). It doesn’t mean I don't think it is a good idea, it is just that inertia is a bear. It is definitely a good idea to try to develop it as a habit whether it is formalized or not.

Somewhere years ago, I heard of a brilliant, and supposedly true, example of challenging an assumption. If you have a life insurance policy, you, or your beneficiary, doesn’t get paid until you die, right? Someone had the idea to ask why does the company have to wait until the person dies before they pay out? After what was likely some mocking laughter, the company realized that someone with a terminal illness, or their family, could probably benefit from a portion of that life insurance policy before they actually died. So, the practice was adopted. I am sure it has been used to help pay for medical bills or, more importantly, opportunities to see loved ones while there is still time. I have to admit I am a little jealous of whoever thought of that. It is really taking the idea of challenging assumptions to heart and with a big impact. If anyone can verify this or provide more info, please do so in the comments.

Sit tight for more on assumptions.

¹ More on this in part 2. ² More on this in part TBD