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Assumptions Are Only Bad if We Don’t Prove (or Disprove) Them

by Hank Barnes  |  June 24, 2014  |  1 Comment

Maybe it is just me.

Most of us have heard the phrase “If you assume, you make an *** out of U and Me.”   Hearing that over and over has left me with a bad opinion of the idea of assumptions.  Whenever I see the word, my initial reaction is negativity.   After spending some time thinking about it more, that needs to change.

Assumptions are at the heart of most innovations and are often critical to gaining fresh insight.  In the scientific world, nothing is learned without an assumption (called, of course, a hypothesis).

As a result, there is no problem with many assumptions.  The problem is when you just take them as fact and don’t attempt to prove or disprove them.


Assumptions are at the heart of the Lean Startup movement, an approach to innovation that is based largely on having a vision and then creating assumptions that are quickly proven, or disproven, to decide if to continue on the course (persevere) or to adjust your plans (pivot).

Assumptions are also core to how innovation happens.  In his compelling book, Where Good Ideas Come From, author Steven Johnson talks about the several ways that highly impactful scientific progress has been made.  In most cases, it starts with an assumption (that then turns into a  slow hunch and evolves with adjacent possibilities, errors, etc.).  You can see a quick summary of his stories in this great YouTube Video and TED Talk.

Assumptions are at the heart of Gartner’s forecast methodology.   Once defined, they are applied to a technology area to project the market into the future.   As those results are generated and viewed in the context of existing behavior, the assumptions are refined.  Without assumptions, forecasting would be nearly impossible (Note: I am not a forecaster, but simply using past behavior to predict the future seems like a non-starter to me, particularly with the volatility of technical markets.  And without assumptions, I’m not sure how else you would make your projections).

If you think about it, many of the marketing claims that we make are assumptions.  We can say, “Our software has helped all of our customers increase revenues by an average of 25%” and that may be a fact.  But when we apply it to a new customer, “therefore, you can expect to increase your revenues by up to 25%”, it is an assumption.   The client, and you, then need to work together to, hopefully, prove that assumption, or disprove it (and make adjustments).

So the next time you hear someone talk about “assuming” or “assumptions”, don’t immediately reject it.  Instead, assess if they are approaching it with something like the scientific method–seeking to prove or disprove it.  If that is the case, its a good thing.

No real progress occurs without assumptions that start the ball rolling toward a new approach.


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Category: go-to-market  

Tags: assumptions  hypothesis  lean  lean-startup  scientific-method  

Hank Barnes
VP Distinguished Analyst
6+ years at Gartner
30+ years IT Industry

Hank Barnes explores the dynamics, challenges, and frustrations enterprises face when buying technology products and services. Using that customer-centric lens, he advises those responsible for marketing technology products and services, general managers responsible for product portfolios, and startup CEOs on next practices to drive success for their customers and their business. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Assumptions Are Only Bad if We Don’t Prove (or Disprove) Them

  1. […] is all about scientifically testing hypotheses.  It is applying the scientific method to customer development.    Discovery leads to validation […]

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