Why challenging assumptions matters

There’s a story from the second world war about Winston Churchill inspecting an artillery unit’s firing drill. He was impressed with the speed with which the four-man team loaded, aimed and fired a large gun hitched to the back of a truck.

But he questioned what a fifth man standing off to the side, uninvolved in proceedings, was there for. “That’s fifth man, sir” the officer replied but could add little more. “Fifth man has always been there, sir” he explained.

That evening the insatiably curious Churchill took a book from his library on the Crimean war where this artillery unit had first been deployed 90 years earlier. In it was a sketch of a four-man artillery team, dressed in similar uniforms and loading a similar gun.

And, off to one side was the ‘fifth man’ — holding the team’s horses.

Left unchallenged assumptions about what we’re doing and why can linger long after the original (logical) decision was first taken. But if you’re an organisation of any size you’ll have ‘fifth men’ all over the place adding no value today (through no fault of anyone’s). This waste (doing things that no longer need doing) prevents your from re-deploying resources to more productive areas.

To challenge assumptions and start re-deploying resources to more productive areas requires you to see the system first and pay attention to it. That’s why we map. Maps provide organisations a holistic, end-to-end view of how they operate today. They enable people to see what’s going on so they can start to ask those important questions, such as: ‘do we sill need someone to hold horses?’

Challenging assumptions might sound uncomfortable, especially to senior management who prefer to think they’re running a well-oiled machine, and may take criticism personally. But maps de-personalise challenge as people criticise the maps and propose improvements (ex, can we re-train fifth man to cover the role of loading, firing or aiming?) rather than looking to blame someone.

This is why challenge should be the duty of everyone in an organisation — but you need maps to start doing this. Be warned though, if you seek retribution against those who challenge assumptions you’re committing a deadly sin. You will lose people’s trust and involvement and cut yourself off from the fresh perspectives and insights you need to innovate and improve. Perhaps Maybe that’s why mapping isn’t for everyone — not everyone wants to adapt.

This short article is part of a series exploring what ‘next generation’ organisations do that your organisation possibly doesn’t. There are 40 universally-useful habits and principles that highly-adaptive organisations (those with high AQ) employ. And there’s no reason why your organisation can’t adopt them too. In fact, you probably have to if you want to survive and thrive in a fast-changing world.

Links to other articles in this series are here:

  1. What do ‘next generation’ organisations do that you don’t?
  2. Focus on high situational awareness
  3. Use a common language

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Govern the state by being straight-forward; wage war by being crafty. — Laozi

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Marcus Guest

Marcus Guest

Govern the state by being straight-forward; wage war by being crafty. — Laozi

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