Habit #6: A Systems Thinker Surfaces and Tests Assumptions

Page 1 of 5: Investigating Beliefs

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Surfaces and Tests Assumptions

In the illustration shown, two people are having different reactions to the graph depicting an upward trend. Let's assume the graph shows growing team performance. There are endless examples for what this graph could represent. The man is happy about the uptick in team performance, as it may mean an increase in compensation or a bonus. The woman sees it differently. She experiences anxiety when viewing the upward trend in team performance because she fears management will now have higher expectations of staff who are already carrying very heavy workloads. Who has the more accurate picture? They won’t really know until they test them with one another.

Investigating Beliefs

Systems thinkers articulate their belief, in this example, feeling positive or negative, and then look for evidence to support or refute this belief. Perhaps the upward trend in team performance is able to deliver both benefits (increased compensations) and setbacks (unmanageable workloads), but the two systems thinkers pictured here will only be able to make that determination after they share and test their beliefs. It takes courage to make your thinking visible to others. Whether you are stating an opinion on a community issue or sharing your personal impression of a social media post, surfacing the assumptions you hold can be risky. The risk involves the reaction of others who may hold a different belief about the same topic or experience.

Research provides an example of surfacing and testing assumptions. Testing assumptions is fundamental to the research process. Research begins with a hypothesis. From there, an experimental design is developed, data are collected and analyzed, and then conclusions are drawn.

School Example

As a specific example, there have been a number of studies that have investigated the benefits and trade-offs of having single-gender, or all-girl and all-boy, schools. The studies are driven by the assumption that boys and girls may perform better in single-gender schools, as mixed-gender schools may offer an increase in distractions between boys and girls or influence the nature of participation in class. These specific assumptions inform the collection and review of statistical data.

The data from a single study can present one view. But what happens when conflicting studies and results both support and refute the hypothesis? A systems thinker takes on a wider view of analysis, increasing the likelihood that all assumptions and supporting data are surfaced, and makes efforts to test beyond single-sample studies or short-term investigations. Using research is one way to surface and test assumptions.

“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer. It takes two to speak the truth — one to speak and another to hear.”

— Henry David Thoreau, essayist and philosopher

When you see conflicting messaging around statements supported by research, how do you test and weigh the value of each message? For example, suppose you like to drink a glass of red wine with dinner; you read a study’s findings that your practice is good for your health, so you support the finding and continue to drink wine. However, you also read a study that describes the negative effect of alcohol use on your health. Does that information cause you to change your behavior?

How do you consider both viewpoints that are claiming to be supported by evidence? How do you test your own assumptions and the assumptions that arise from what you read and listen to in media reports and from experts in the field? In our internet-driven world, quick access to information makes this Habit extremely important to how we weed through evidence that leads to the formation of our beliefs. How can we develop a habit that helps us manage and test our own assumptions?