Saturday, 23 July 2011

Challenging Assumptions

Questioning assumptions is a crucial exercise for anyone looking to establish themselves as a revolutionary thinker and problem solver.

Despite this, the critical analysis of textbook theory or accepted business practices is not something I see many students readily undertaking. It’s something I strongly encourage them to do. Afterall, if you look at history, the people who have changed the world are the ones who have questioned established thinking. Take Mahatma Gandhi as just one example. During his time most of the people who were fighting against the Indian Government were doing so using violent means. But he questioned the assumption that violence was a necessity and wondered if maybe there was a better way. When it comes to a business context, I try to illustrate that if you really want to be unique, then you too must think differently. If you don’t, you’ll probably just come to the same conclusions as everybody else.

One of the ways to challenge perceptions is to closely examine the assumptions of a particular framework or theory or practice and question why it has to happen that way. Consider the field of marketing as an example. We’re constantly bombarded with the idea that the best way to succeed in the marketplace is to understand the needs and wants of consumers and meet those needs better than everybody else. I don’t think there’s enough questioning of that fundamental assumption. Indeed, what if we asked the following questions: do consumers really know what they want? Do they know what kind of smartphone they want in five-years? Very few could tell you that, yet operating on the above assumption may mean that you’re constrained by their vision, not yours. Therefore you’re driven, not driving.

In the classroom I tell students that they may one day find themselves in a situation where 100 people are looking at the same management or marketing challenge. But by pushing key assumptions from the problem, they may well be able to come up with a solution that is truly unique.

Author: De Ranjit Voola – University of Sydney Business School

6 comments:

  1. Consumers needs are fundamental but flipping a business model, product, service 180 degrees / upside down is often the best solution. You need to look at it from a different angle. I also find that "borrowing" ideas from other markets helps differentiate consumer offers without too much outlay. It could be as simple as the way an offer is packaged up or even what type of terms and conditions are put in place for a certain offer. Its a simple way of challenging the status quo of an industry.

    Consumers will never tell you what they need - over 200 consumer focus groups in a past life has taught me that! Until you put to them what may be possible they are unlikely to come up with anything, at best a very vague encrypted thought of what they want - usually quite far fetched and uncommercial. Most often the way to get an idea of what is needed by consumers is to start with a problem, if it's a problem in their daily lives and you create a solution then you have filled a need.

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  2. Matthew John Lim12 August 2011 12:45

    Alright, let me see whether I can put my brain to good use. And I highly doubt I am a practising guru, but I do try my best =)
    1. First paragraph: Yes, I agree that questioning things around you is crucial in everyday life, for if we stop th...inking, then what good are we? We have to always keep re-inventing and improving ourselves, or we will lose the rat-race.

    2. Second paragraph: “When it comes to a business context, I try to illustrate that if you really want to be unique, then you too must think differently.” I agree, however, if you want students to start thinking differently, they would have needed to start thinking differently from a young age. But now, we question: what is the meaning of ‘differently’? Is the context of difference attributed to societal / cultural values or a different way of thinking as compared to your peers?

    Thinking WITH a difference comes with experience. How do we get this experience? By having a positive attitude towards learning and improving oneself. For example, if you work in a cake shop for 3 years, you would know the whole business and what drives the business - from the supply chain management to the value add for your customers, to the pricing models of your cakes relative to the ‘market’. Not to mention building a relationship with your flour & eggs supplier.

    3. Third paragraph: “One of the ways to challenge perceptions is to closely examine the assumptions of a particular framework or theory or practice and question why it has to happen that way.” I agree with this sentiment. Another way to articulate this statement is to ask, “These theories have been put in place years ago, should they be applicable in this day and age? Have people changed the way they think since the 1900s – 1950s – 1990s?”

    “We’re constantly bombarded with the idea that the best way to succeed in the marketplace is to understand the needs and wants of consumers and meet those needs better than everybody else. I don’t think there’s enough questioning of that fundamental assumption.” And this is why, as Marketers, we need to create the need – through subtle and viral advertising. For example, look at Google’s Android. Google saw a hole in the market, have a platform/OS for the nerds of the world. Who was out in the market 4-5yrs ago? Nokia with its Symbian OS (targeted at normal everyday consumers who required a handphone), RIM with Blackberry (targeted at business people – known as the ‘security phone’), Apple with iOS (targeted at fanboys and people who wanted to be ‘cool’). What about the nerds? And then, they did something where no one else would’ve thought. They made it open-source – this means handset makers can tweak Android to customise it with their own brand. Google questioned whether there was a need for Android, and now Android is the fastest growing platform in the market with ~35% market share.

    Do consumers know what they want in 5 years? Probably not. But, if you ask a student what they want in 5 years, they would probably tell you, “I want to work in a nice company and earn lots of money.” It’s how to get there, that’s the question.

    4. Fourth paragraph: Just a general comment about this paragraph. I think everyone is unique, it is just a matter of whether the individual is capitalising on the opportunity that is presented for them instead of complaining. Remember to take every single obstacle as an opportunity to learn one’s strength and weakness and one’s likes and dislikes. Remember, experience matters. That and the art of vocalising oneself.See More

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  3. Jarrod Vassallo12 August 2011 12:49

    I can't agree more. While I think that business people can do no more than apply common sense, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of going along with prevailing beliefs - the zeitgeist if you like. The true application of common sense comes from diligently pulling apart the logic of existing institutions to find opportunities. At least that's my take on it.

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  4. I think it's a good article. I like the tone of it and you made it quite provocative by questioning whether the purpose of marketing is to meet consumer needs and wants. As a side note: I guess although i believe that consumers may not kno...w what they want, even the most game-changing products "expose" a latent need or want e.g. Iphones with mobile information/entertainment.​ You talk about gandhi but i wonder whether the argument could be strengthened by referencing a business model that had it's assumptions questioned and led to massive increases in business results e.g. taylorism, selling concept etc...See More

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  5. thanks ben, insightful...some companies that are questioning assumptions: Yellow Tail Wines: Wine should be marketed based on heritage...Tata and Unilever: possible to make money and alleviate poverty. It is not that say that traditional thinking is incorrect, but it might just be the case that questioning what is normal may lead to newer insights.

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  6. Sheshanth Bhambore17 August 2011 00:07

    Great topic. This is a nice pedestal from which a more detailed discussion can be taken on.

    For me a vision (be it industry/product/solution/service/market) comes from thought leaders and industry leaders who want to excel, who want to leave competition behind, who have a gut feel that their product or solution is going to change in a certain way over the next few years because the market needs will change that way (a lot of names come to mind: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Oracle, Facebook).

    Currently consumers do know what they want, for instance take the apple app store: thousands of developers (who are also power users) with a vision took the iPhone and made it do a lot more than what was originally intended. while these individuals are visionaries in their own piece-meal kind of way, the parent company (in this case Apple) will take these developments and what they have been working on themselves and incorporate in the next release.

    The job of marketing is to ensure that it draws up a picture of life with the new product or solution which is creating new or optimum use of technology or just making life simpler and once industry leaders achieve that - periodically marketing, by way of anecdotal feedback from customers draw up a new picture which industry leaders will want to cater to again thereby making products and services better.

    As far as 100 students taking up the same challenge is concerned - I love Competition.

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