We recently led a series of breakout sessions at an annual conference. The conference was put on by a fast-growing bakery franchise. In attendance were bakery owners and corporate support staff. During the breakout sessions we taught the bakery owners how to use the SCAN Framework (Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs) to tackle challenging problems.
Most people using SCAN have an intuitive grasp of the structures, the context, and the needs influencing their situation. Assumptions are harder to access. Shared beliefs and mindsets form our operating systems, but like a computer’s operating system, most of us don’t know what it’s doing or how it works until something goes wrong or it’s time for a big change.
The company’s bakeries are known for their unique, high-quality, hand-crafted cakes. They think about the purpose of their business as bringing joy. They promote their cakes as the centerpiece of celebrations. They have a cult-like following of people who rave about experiencing their first bite of cake.
To help the bakery owners become more aware of their assumptions, I asked them to react to a terrible idea. I suggested that they box up their most popular recipes in cake-mix form and put them on grocery store shelves next to the Betty Crocker cake mixes. Lucky for me, I prepared them to be offended by the idea. When I asked them to explain what makes the idea terrible, we started to hear more about their assumptions:
- People count on us for a consistent, fresh-baked product.
- Our guests love the variety of choices we offer.
- Only high-quality ingredients prepared by hand and using our methods will produce the cake. You can’t do it at home.
- Visiting our bakeries is a joyful experience and essential to our brand.
The purpose of the exercise is not to abandon assumptions. The purpose is to become more aware of our assumptions. When you’re aware of your assumptions, you can have more productive discussions about controversial ideas. Controversial ideas are provocative precisely because they challenge our assumptions. Adopting a provocative idea often means letting go of something predictable and comforting.
In our experience, organizations don’t suffer from a lack good ideas. In organizational settings, good ideas face two common obstacles. First, the best ideas may never get in front of the people with the authority to enact them. Secondly, new ideas rarely survive their first encounter with the status quo. Assumptions and mindsets protect the status quo.
Becoming aware of shared organizational assumptions will help you anticipate the change-management implications of adopting a provocative idea. For example, to support the growth of the bakery company, there will inevitably be pressure to streamline operations. At some point, an idea to increase efficiency will bump up against the assumption: Only high-quality ingredients prepared by hand and using our methods will produce the cake.
How to use a Terrible Idea to Uncover Hidden Assumptions
Let’s say you feel stuck. The ideas you have look great on paper and you’ve been given the green light to implement them. And yet, you repeatedly experience setbacks as you try to turn your ideas into meaningful change.
- Set aside the good ideas and bring together a team.
- invite them to brainstorm terrible ideas. Ideas that are guaranteed to produce a visceral, negative reaction from your stakeholders. By the way, your team will find it liberating and fun to produce a list of dangerous ideas.
- Rank the ideas to find the best of the worst. When prioritizing the list of ideas, the most useful, terrible ideas will be the ones that are plausible, but feel unsettling. For example, imagine recommending to the senior team of Disney’s Theme Parks that they open a Disney casino in Las Vegas. Useful terrible ideas will take the organization in a new direction, not just offer a bad change to an existing way of doing business. For example, suggesting that McDonald’s become a wireless network operator is a more useful terrible idea than suggesting that McDonald’s serve their food on fine China.
- Finally, facilitate a discussion about why the most terrible ideas evoke an emotional reaction.
Once you clarify the hidden assumptions that seem to create a gravitational field that holds things in place, you’ll have a better understanding of why your new ideas won’t take. You may also uncover some ancient assumptions that are somehow still in play, but no longer feel relevant.
Jay G. Cone is the author of The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do; Discovering Creativity and Compassion in a Time of Chaos. He is the co-founder of Unstuck Minds.