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Hypothetically Speaking

Science has advanced mainly through failed hypotheses. New theories, ideas, or inventions are based on the invalidation of a previous hypothesis. This type of advancement is also true in other arenas, including business. However, most people focus on confirming hypotheses and spend little, if any, time looking for contrary evidence. I think there are a number of reasons for this:

  • We have an emotional investment in the hypothesis and want to be right. This is especially true when we created the hypothesis or when our job is seemingly dependent on the hypothesis being true (which is hardly ever true, even when it seems to be).
  • Our boss or executive leader is a big proponent of the hypothesis, and we don’t want to contradict them.
  • We created a bad hypothesis that really can’t be invalidated.
  • We don’t even consider that our assumption or belief should be tested and skip creating a true hypothesis. We treat our assumption as a statement of fact and then go about putting together all the evidence that supports it without even considering contradictory evidence.

In a business context, focusing too much attention on confirming our hypotheses can lead to lethargy, a culture of acquiesence, and poor business decisions. Most hypotheses are created from our assumptions about what is true or what has been true in the past. So focusing only on affirming hypotheses will result in an organizational culture that doesn’t question assumptions and continues to do what it’s always done.

This can be espescially dangerous when developing customer insights or customer strategies. Faulty assumptions and flawed, stagnant processes are most prevalent where the customer is involved. Hypotheses are generally formed by our perspective and not the customers’. We fully expect the customer will love our new product and find all sorts of evidence to support that view. However, customers hate it, and the product fails. Or we assume our service is far superior to our competitors and customers will not be swayed by their advancements. Then we find that customers are defecting to the competition in droves.

I would encourage everyone, especially those responsible for developing customer strategies, to do five things:

  1. Create a culture of testing and inquiry. It is essential to moving your company forward.
  2. Develop good hypotheses based on your assumptions. 
  3. Know what it would require to disprove the hypothesis.
  4. Try to find good, solid evidence against your hypothesis. The supporting evidence is much easier to find. 
  5. Be willing to challenge the common wisdom of your company or leadership when the hypothesis is shown to be wrong. This can be uncomfortable, but if you do it respectfully and with the support of strong evidence, the message should be accepted. It also helps to have a few other colleagues in your corner! 

Disproving a hypothesis can be uncomfortable, especially when it’s based on a widely held belief. But if it’s not true, and you don’t do disprove it, someone else will – either a colleague or a competitor. And you may miss the chance to make the next big advancement for your company, your industry, or maybe even the world. 

Troy Powell, Ph.D.
VP, Statistical Solutions

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