Disproving Ideas

In my last post, I wrote about leveraging data to challenge assumptions, which for me as a strategist is crucial for gaining a deeper understanding of a brand or a market. Today, I want to build on this exercise and illustrate that it’s just as important to challenge the thoughts and ideas that we develop along the way.

To demonstrate the importance of this, let’s look at a quick interactive puzzle. It was published in the New York Times blog the Upshot and puts your problem-solving skills to the test. Take a minute and try for yourself.

Chances are that you belong to the majority of people who’ve played this game and guessed the answer without first hearing a single no. (If you belong to the 9 percent who heard at least three no’s and you aspire to work in strategy, do get in touch!)

As the author David Leonhardt points out, “Not only are people more likely to believe information that fits their preexisting beliefs, but they’re also more likely to go looking for such information.“ Leonhardt cites examples for this phenomenon, which is called „confirmation bias.“ And indeed, there’s no shortage: governments justifying their action, corporations confirming their business models, and plenty of other cases.

However, what I miss on this list is the field of brand strategy. Of course, strategists work hard to deliver convincing arguments for their theories — looking for successful cases, researching relevant data, effectively putting together whatever helps to prove the strategy right. Just as importantly (but less often done), we should also try to disprove these ideas. As Leonhardt puts it, “When you’re considering a plan, think in detail about how it might go wrong.“

If you wonder how this principle can be integrated into the strategic process, here’s a piece of inspiration that, in my experience, works well: In workshops, confirm your plan and discuss topics such as success factors of the project or the desired outcome. Those are valuable insights to outline the roadmap and stay on track. However, don’t stop there. Raise questions that seek to disprove your ideas. How could the strategy fail? Imagine the strategy has failed; what are the most likely reasons it did?

These kinds of questions are usually more inconvenient. You’ll have to be willing to hear answers that put your work at stake. As we learned in the experiment, the reluctance to do so is only human after all. But overcoming this trait will always be worth the effort. Consequently, challenging your own thoughts and ideas will lead to substantial discussions and, in the end, better results.

_Cornelius Hummel is a senior brand strategist at MetaDesign Berlin.