When it comes to strategy and innovation, success depends on how fast you become aware of your assumptions and then modify them. But it's a paradox: You can't see your most fundamental assumptions until you overcome them. This means that you can only understand your mindsets that were barriers retrospectively.
Let's look at how this works. I have a quick story for you, then a question.
A bus driver was heading down Van Ness Avenue in my home town of San Francisco. He went through a stop sign without even slowing down, then turned onto a one-way street going the opposite direction as the rest of the traffic. A police officer saw the whole thing but he didn't stop him or issue a ticket because no laws had been broken. The question for you is this: How can this scenario be possible?
If you answered that the bus driver was walking down the street, you are correct. This is a very simple example to illustrate how we all make assumptions. Most people just assume that a bus driver is always driving a bus. But of course, that's not the case. The most important part of this exercise isn't to point out that an assumption may have been made in the first place - it's only natural to do so. It's to show that most of us only recognize that we've made an assumption after we've discovered that our thinking was invalid or that it led us astray. And by then, it can often be "too late."
Let's go back to the bus driver for a moment. What if I had framed things up in the scenario a little differently and included another statement up front that said "In San Francisco, people use cars, take the bus, or walk down the street to get where they're going." How would this have impacted your assumptions? For most people, the idea that it's possible the bus driver could be walking down the street would have been planted in their brains as they read the rest of the scenario - and they would have more easily overcome their limiting assumption that bus drivers only drive buses. The goal is to continually broaden your perspective so that you can overcome your assumptions before they limit your options or slow you down.
Here are a couple of tried and true approaches I've used to challenge and expand mindsets.
Identify Areas of Intrigue
When it comes to developing your strategy or innovating, get clear on what you need to know and learn. List up to 4-5 topics. Examples might include things like board games children like most, the healthiest yet best tasting desserts, or the most successful social media influencers. For each topic, create a list of guiding questions that, if answered, would really give you a solid understanding of the area. For instance, using the board games children like most example, you could come up with questions like: What are the most popular children's board games? How long do the best games take to play? Do adults usually play with the children? What does it take to win? This exercise will help you better understand what's most important to further explore so you can broaden your perspective.
Adapt a Business Model
Find a company completely outside of your industry or market and look at what makes them different and what they do really well. Then adapt their model to your cause. Use the format "I want to be the ____________ of ____________" by putting a company name into the first blank and the area of your target market or innovation area into the second blank. For example, if you want to transform the fashion industry, you might try "I want to be the Netflix of fashion", which could lead you down the path of high-end evening gown rental services like Rent the Runway. Consider companies like Starbucks, Twitter, Domino's, NIKE, Home Depot, or any other innovative company you can think of.
Your mindsets naturally constrain your ability to consider alternatives and possibilities that go beyond the boundaries of your thinking. Your limiting assumptions can be about personal skills, team knowledge and abilities, organizational capabilities, market needs, technology, financial limitations, partnership possibilities, competition, or just about anything else. The goal is to recognize you hold assumptions and then act to surface them.
As the writer John Seely Brown once said, the harder you fight to hold on to specific assumptions, the more likely there's gold in letting go of them.