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How to Challenge Assumptions

(An excerpt from the e-book "Problem Solving Power".)

Challenging assumptions is one of the most powerful ways to generate new ideas. But the hardest part is identifying all the the things we are assuming so that we can challenge them. Learn to do this, though, and you'll have some truly creative ideas and effective solutions.

Start the process with a pen and paper. For an example of this exercise in action, we will assume the following invented scenario: You own a bicycle manufacturing company, and you want to create a new product to sell.

How do you get some new and really creative ideas to explore? Write down all your assumptions. These may include:

1. Bicycles need wheels.
2. People buy bicycles to get from here to there.
3. Bicycles need two wheels.
4. They have to be powered by a persons legs
5. We have to sell them.
6. They need to be made of metal.
7. We need a new product.

When you are done you should have a list much longer than this one. Don't hesitate to write down even the most obvious "truths." When you are done, you can begin challenging each assumption on the list.

1. Does a bicycle need wheels? You imagine a "bike" with skis that hydroplanes on water when you pedal fast enough. You jot the idea down.

2. Does the rider have to go somewhere? A bike that goes nowhere? Maybe an exercise bike that runs a TV set? You only get to watch TV when you are pedaling. A video game that is controlled by riding a stationary bicycle?

3. Four wheels? What are the advantages? Where is the market? You write down anything that comes to mind.

4. Why only leg power? A pedaling device for use with the hands? A new mini-motor for bikes?

5. Not sell them? Maybe rent them. Maybe the water-bike from above would be a good beach rental. Sell to vendors, who rent to the ultimate consumer.

6. What are the alternatives to metal? What are the advantages of fiberglass or plastic?

7. Do you really need a new product? What if you drop the whole idea of a new product? Maybe there is more money to be made marketing the existing products in new ways. That would save the cost of retooling. You write down some new ideas on marketing your existing bikes.

Notice that number seven challenges the problem itself. Challenging the primary assumption, or the definition of the problem, can often yield the most useful ideas. It can be tough to identify these "hidden" assumptions.

Would you normally think to add to your list the assumption "I have to solve this?" Doing so could lead you to the realization that delegating it to the engineers would be the best way to go. When you challenge what you previously assumed, look for all the assumptions to get the widest variety of solutions.

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Challenge Assumptions