Surfacing Invisible Rules

What often can hold our change initiatives back are mental models about how or why something happens. Historically, many innovations and discoveries were held back or failed outright because people were unable to see or believe what was in front of them. By asking a set of questions at the outset and throughout your project you can avoid many mishaps.

The scene below from Men In Black illustrates what happens when our mental models about the world get upended and ask a simple question about what we know*. (*Just prior to this scene, Will Smith’s character confronts alien life forms for the first time — something that Tommy Lee Jones’ character already knows and lives with.)

One way to surface these hidden assumptions is through an exercise we might call ‘Invisible Rules‘. This three-part exercise can help you surface and uncover those ‘hidden’ rules we live by that might be holding us back from what we are seeking to change.

The exercise involves asking a series of questions in three stages:

1. Assumptions

  • What assumptions am I operating under?
    • Consider things like people (populations, characteristics, traits, knowledge, skills, preferences), time and timing, the likelihood of success, resources required.
  • How did these assumptions come about?
    • Is the evidence based on fact or folk knowledge?
  • What evidence is there to support that these assumptions are true?
    • Is this evidence still valid? (e.g., is it based on a historical or current position? Has something changed considerably since the evidence was first generated to prompt questions about its relevance?)

2. Design

With these answers, we move to a new set of questions tied to the design of your innovation (project, product, service, etc..)

  • Can I modify any part of the design (e.g., remove, reduce, amplify, or replace) that might make it better?
  • What can I learn (borrow, modify, adapt) from other designs addressing similar issues?

3. Future-casting

Lastly, it is useful to ask yourself three “How might” questions about your innovation.

  • How might this project fail?
    • For whom? Under what conditions?
  • How might we learn about what we’re doing while we’re doing it?
    • The evaluation and reflection metrics, measures, and processes in place to learn what works and doesn’t as you go.
  • How might things change beyond our control?
    • Possible surprises that might sidetrack your plans (e.g., pandemic, government change, policy change).

These simple set of questions can produce an enormous amount of data for you and your team. In just a few hours you might save years of pain and problems and see beyond the fence into the pool of opportunity beyond.

Want help in seeing things differently and asking better questions in your work? There are some simple steps that can help your team see things that others can’t. Contact us. This is what we do.

we’d be happy to help.

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