Recently, I’ve been thinking about how much I actually don’t know, even when I am absolutely certain that I do! For example, the other day I’d planned to meet a friend for lunch at a local coffee shop. I arrived at 1 pm, the appointed time, but my friend wasn’t there. After waiting a few minutes I started wondering if she’d forgotten. She has a very busy schedule and it’s happened once or twice before. Twenty grumpy minutes later, as I’d convinced myself that she had forgotten (yet again), she texted me that she’d had a flat tire and was waiting for roadside assistance. Boy was I wrong! But I had been so certain that I knew why she was late.
Think about a time something like that happened to you. You probably went through a pretty similar thought process: you were certain that you knew what was happening based on past experience…which you then found out was wrong! We experience this all the time – in our personal lives and our work lives: under the guise of being certain we make all kinds of assumptions based on the conclusions our brain leaps to from our prior experiences.
Why do we do this?
Because our brain is wired for certainty. Certainty makes our brain feel good! And when our brain feels good so do we! And the better our brain feels, the more likely we are to want to continue to be certain! Since our brain loves certainty so much, it’s important to work hard to consciously realize that we are often making assumptions under the guise of certainty.
Being certain prevents us from asking the questions of our customers – and ourselves – that will allow us to deliver the specific value that each of them wants and needs. Making assumptions disrupts our ability to think and act creatively because we believe we know – based on our past experiences – what our customers want now and how we can – or can’t – deliver that. But there are many possibilities. And discovering and trying out those possibilities is what creativity is all about. With the speed that customer’s needs change, now more than ever, our organizations need creativity to find new and better ways to satisfy each of them so that we thrive for the long-term and fulfill our business’ unique purpose in the world.
Let’s see how this works. Think about a time in your organization that your team was trying to solve a customer service problem: let’s say late deliveries. Maybe the conversation went something like this:
Manager: We’ve had three customer complaints about late deliveries this week. Seems unusual. Anyone have any idea what’s going on?
First CSR: Yeah, we’ve had lots of customers call us late this week because they’re all on summer vacation.
Second CSR: Agreed. And when they call late, there’s no easy way for us to change the default delivery time in the online system. It’s just the way it works. Nothing to be done about it.
Third CSR: And everyone knows that delivery always slows down in the summer. Drivers are on vacation too!
Sound familiar? That’s what I thought.
In my work as a service excellence consultant and lean coach, I hear conversations like this all the time. Based on people’s past experience, they are absolutely certain they know what’s going on – and that there’s nothing that can be done. But is that really so? Or is our brain just leaping to conclusions and making assumptions?
Making assumptions, I’d say. Here’s how you can tell:
1. If your organization is like many others I’ve worked with, this conversation is taking place in a conference room, not on the service floor where the problem is occurring. And if we aren’t where the problem is happening how can we be certain of what’s really going on? Did every customer with a late delivery actually call late? How can we be sure that the delivery service is short-handed? Did we ask them? And how do we know that it’s impossible to have software changed? Have we asked IT about every possibility?
2. No – or very few – questions are asked during the discussion. Everyone simply states their opinion – or perception – based on their experiences. When I hear that, I’m pretty sure we’re dealing with assumptions because not asking questions is one of the tricks our brain uses to allow us to maintain the certainty that makes us, and our brain, happy!
Unfortunately, every time we believe we are certain and ignore the fact that we’re probably making assumptions, we lose the opportunity ask the questions that will allow us to understand what each of our customers really wants and needs, how the work we do really gets done and even how the computer systems with which we interact really work. And in not asking those questions we lose the opportunity to find new and creative ways to satisfy those customers and do our work.
So how can we get better at recognizing that we’re making probably making assumptions even when we’re certain?
1. Pay attention to what you are thinking and saying. Start to notice that the thoughts you have – no matter how certain you are about them – are probably assumptions.
2. Question everything. As soon as you think something – anything – ask yourself why you think that? How do you really know it?
3. Write down open-ended questions that you could ask yourself and others:? How do you know that’s so? How can we find that out?
4. Go and see with your own eyes what’s going on where the work is being done and the problems are occurring for your customers. When you’re there you can ask questions to understand and dispel your own – and others’ – assumptions.
At first, it may feel strange to question yourself and others. Remember, our brain wants to be certain and feel good. After a while, though, you’ll find that questioning to dispel assumptions becomes a habit. And that not being certain has its own special kind of joy: the joy of an ever-deeper understanding of our complicated and complex ever-changing world, the joy of more deeply connecting with customers and the people you work together with, and the joy of creativity – of finding new and better ways of delivering service based on what each customer really wants now – not on assumptions or past experiences.
So next time you’re really certain about something, I challenge you to override your brain’s desire to feel good and, instead, ask yourself the necessary questions to find out if what you’re really doing is making an assumption.
My customers need me to be more creative so I’m working on this every day. Your customers need you to be more creative so I hope you will too.