When my team redesigned our company's website, I knew that it would be the face of Optimizely for our thousands of customers and for the millions of monthly visitors who want to learn about our products and services. As my digital team worked on core questions like "What should go in the navigation bar?" and "What content will customers see first?" I waited them to come to me to get my point of view. It's what I'd have done in their shoes. As the CEO, I am used to weighing in on every major decision.

But I got a pleasant surprise when my team came to me not with questions, but answers.

Turns out, they had solid data about what our customers and prospects wanted. They already knew which content was performing best and what site elements led to conversions. They'd already run experiments on different designs and eliminated the ones that didn't perform.

My input wasn't really needed.

As CEO and business leader, this was a mildly ego-deflating experience, I'll admit. But it's one I would wish on every current and future leader out there, because I realized that I hadn't really been waiting for the team's point of view. I had been waiting to advocate for my own assumptions, which in my mind have the same status as truth.

Let's face the facts: Managers and executives advocate their opinions based on assumptions more often than not, and in particular when it pertains to the digital experience. The old adage "everybody has an opinion when it comes to marketing" applies to digital, in particular. That means companies are putting their brands and their revenue growth at risk by relying on employee assumptions every day.

For the average company, especially one that sells services or intangibles like software, the brand is invaluable. According to Forbes, it can be responsible for up to 50 percent of the value of a company.

As a thought experiment, imagine staking 50 percent of the value of your car or home on untested assumptions. The foundation might look solid to the naked eye, but what if an expert analysis revealed cracks you couldn't see? Or imagine inviting a date to a restaurant just because you'd eaten well there two years ago. Wouldn't it be worth it to check the online review to see if anything had changed? Or if it were even still open?

And yet, when it comes to the digital experience delivered by our companies, we leaders are willing to stake everything on a hunch, especially if it's our hunch.

If you want to know how much value there is in getting past your assumptions, look at what NYU business professor Scott Galloway calls the big four: Facebook/Meta, Amazon, Apple, and Google. They are currently responsible for a significant percentage of the U.S GDP.

Much has been written in the past two decades about the culture of these companies. I'd argue that the signature feature that drives success isn't just working with available data, but working against assumptions held at every level and in every department. The massive amount of data that is created and collected on the internet allows companies today to make data-driven decisions that were not feasible in a physical world. Data thus should weigh heavily in every decision. But you also have to make sure it isn't outweighed by your assumptions.

Because of new digital tools, like multi-variant testing, content optimization, and easily shared data, the kind of value creation systems that allowed the big four to flourish are available to every company and, frankly, every aspiring business leader. This is a big opportunity, but to seize it, every entrepreneur and ambitious employee will have to resolve their own crises of assumptions first.

I speak to a lot of students, early-career leaders, and executives across many different industries, and what I see is a big performance gap between those who rely on assumptions and those who rely on data. The data-based decision-makers are adapting faster, growing faster, and cementing their lead against the competition--even when the competition includes brands with a decades-long head start.

As humans, we are not always hard-wired to make decisions based on a test-and-learn approach. Here are three ways to help you and your team fight assumptions.

Fight assumptions at the highest level.

All it takes is one leader, manager, or senior associate continuing to push their own assumptions to run a company off-track. Make a decision as a team to find a good source of data, put your trust in it, and advocate that others do the same.

Here are a few questions to ask as you formulate a strategy:

  • Who owns the decision-making process for our digital experience?
  • What's the basis for their ownership?

Figure out how assumption-dependent you are.

Ask yourself: Which employees, colleagues, and teams have regular check-ins with some reliable source of data that affects their work? Find everyone who doesn't commit to finding that source and setting up a review process.

And don't forget that sometimes that source of data can be another team or person in another department. On many occasions, I've seen magic happen when the product team and the marketing team find a source of customer data they can trust and share.

Pick a platform.

It isn't enough to have the data. And it isn't enough to fight assumptions in your culture. You need to automate the process of sharing reliable data about your customers and core processes. You need to make having access to the data as easy and intuitive as it is to make assumptions about what the data should say. Otherwise, in the accelerated pace of day-to-day operations, assumptions will always find a way back into the decision-making process at both the executive and operating levels.

Regardless of your level of product ownership, management, or leadership, adapting your decision-making process to one that is data-driven will keep you and your company in the running to capture the huge gains that are about to go to those at the upper end of the digital experience gap. And if you're working at an upstart brand, you're likely heavily reliant on a solid digital experience anyway. Every small optimization you make now--at the individual and company levels--opens the door to success in the future.

Further, if you're in any sort of leadership or team manager role at a company of any size, you owe it to yourself and the people you work with to see how much progress you can make when colleagues are not seeking your assumptions, but with real answers about what your customers (and, thereby, you) really want.