Are you making new presumptions?

First published in BW Businessworld here.

During World War I, a Colonel Patton was asked to establish a Light Tank Training School, he trained on French tanks and established a school in a small French village called Bourg. One day, in 1917, the village Mayor complained that he, a Mayor, was not kept informed about the death of a soldier in his village. Colonel Patton was not aware of any such incident, hence, when the Mayor insisted that they visit the ‘grave’, the curious Colonel couldn’t refuse. They walked through the village and came to a newly closed latrine pit, with the earth properly banked, a stick at one end to which was affixed a crosswise sign stating, “Abandoned Rear”. This; the army’s closed makeshift toilet, the poor French Mayor had mistaken for a cross affixed on the grave of a martyred soldier. But Colonel Patton didn’t have the heart to tell the Mayor the truth that day.

The years rolled on and by World War II, that Colonel Patton came to be known as General George S Patton – the commander of the Allied forces. In 1944, as the US Army and General Patton drove through the newly liberated Bourg, the villagers reminded him that he was there earlier as a young Colonel. They organized a tour for the General, the procession wound through his old haunts including his old office, billets and finally ended at the “grave of the fallen American soldier” – Abandoned Rear. Ever since the village Mayor, back in 1917, presumed that if looks like a grave, it must be one, the locals continued paying their respects at the ‘grave’ for close to thirty years, since the end of WW1. What was in truth, full of s**t had turned into a shrine for an American soldier who died in service of France.

This scatological tale, as funny as it is, holds valuable lessons about presumptions we make in doing our jobs. For instance, we presume that a sales role means being a road-warrior; traveling 20 days a month, catching red-eye flights and having a travel bag permanently packed. In fact, in my early Sales stint, after taking over from my predecessor, I even took on his punishing travel schedule – unthinkingly presuming that’s what it called for.

While the pandemic has reset and evolved new behaviors and expectations, one of its greatest fallouts has been exposing our presumptions across all aspects of business.

As we discover new, more cost-efficient and effective ways of operating, we must also be wary of new presumptions setting in. Sometime last year, the Harvard Business Review published a very useful framework to think about changes on account of the pandemic. This 4-box framework encourages one to think of changes in behavior or practice in terms of a Boost (temporary acceleration or deceleration), Catalyst (lasting acceleration), Displacement (or temporary shift) and Innovation (new trend).  By applying critical thinking to develop and plot hypothesis about all aspects of your business into these 4 quadrants, you will evolve new processes and not end up replacing old presumptions with new.

And anyone telling you anything else is probably full of what’s lies inside the ‘graves’ at Bourg.