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Digital Economy

15 assumptions leaders should reconsider


Assumptions are a fundamental part of the way people work and communicate. But as the world changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and new ways of thinking about work and society, assumptions should be acknowledged and, in some cases, changed.

“Assumptions are not bad or good. They're important,” MIT Sloan senior lecturer said during a recent webinar hosted by MIT Sloan Management Review. “We just need to know they're there. And we need to know when to use them, we need to know when to question them, and when to think differently about them.”

In the workplace, assumptions can be valuable as they align people along a common viewpoint and create a shared language and way of decision making, Westerman said. But they can also reinforce unconscious biases and force compliance, and cause people to reject innovation.

To start, leaders should reconsider the following assumptions about what customers want, how employees work, and how organizations can drive change and innovation.

5 assumptions about what customers want

1. Customers value the human touch. The pandemic accelerated “impersonal” services such as curbside pickups and telehealth appointments, and showed that some customers prefer the speed and ease of self-service. “The key point is that customers really want personal service, but they may not want it from a person,” said Westerman, who is also a principal research scientist for workforce learning at MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab. If your business model depends on the human touch, ask if it’s actually better for customers, or is it just the way things have always been done?

2. In-person is better than digital. In some cases, the digital experience can be the same, or even better, than in-person. Digital offerings — like telehealth appointments or conferences that don’t require any travel — are often more convenient. “You want to figure out here what's the right combination of digital and physical,” he said.

3. People won't pay full price for a digital version of a product and service. Some people may have thought they’d never pay theater ticket prices for a movie they watch at home. But it’s nice to be able to pause a movie and watch in sweatpants. Convenience has value, Westerman said.

4. Pandemic-era service restrictions are only temporary. Suspending daily cleaning services and free breakfasts in hotels wasn’t a passing fad, Westerman said. Some conveniences aren’t missed, and companies are likely to reexamine them before resuming them.

5. The old way was the right way. “You should be asking why, all the time,” Westerman said.

5 assumptions about employees

6. If employees aren't in the office, they're not productive. The pandemic has shown that this is not true, Westerman said, though this might vary depending on the person or the job.

7. Companies need to locate where the talent is. Remote work has made it possible to work from anywhere, and companies need to rethink their location strategies accordingly, Westerman said.

8. The same rules should apply to everybody. One rule for everyone is important in some cases, like regulatory compliance, but people have different needs. The pandemic showed the value in giving people leeway to meet obligations, Westerman said.

9. When employees are working for you, they aren’t working for anyone else. If an employee becomes less productive, employers might ask themselves whether they need help becoming more productive, or if they are working at a side job, Westerman said. To avoid this, focus on making sure people are set up to be as productive and energized as possible at work.

10. Employees will work the way they are told to. Today employees have a great deal of freedom and opportunity, and think a lot about what they want out of their jobs. “We need to think about how employees want to work, not how we want them to work,” he said.

5 assumptions about driving change in organizations

11. Question your guiding tenets. Many people believe either that first movers win, fast followers win, or slow and steady wins the race. But think about under which conditions each of those is true, and under which conditions each is not true, Westerman said. Whether these things are applicable depends on context and may vary by product, region, and customer type.

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12. Digital transformation is a technological challenge. People tend to think that machine learning, sensors, and technology allow change to happen. “Technology isn’t the hard part, the hard part’s changing your company to make it work,” Westerman said, calling this his “first law of innovation.” Digital transformation is everyone’s concern, not just the tech department.

13. Digital is fast and the IT unit is slow. Digital initiatives should not be kept separate from the organization’s IT department. Anything eventually reaching customers needs to link back to the organization and its processes, Westerman said.

14. “The regulators will never let us do that.” This assumption shuts down innovation — nobody wants to fight with regulators. But the pandemic proved this wrong as doctors treated patients online despite privacy concerns and vaccines were created and approved with unprecedented speed. Bring regulators in early so they aren’t surprised, and work closely with them, Westerman said.

15. You can differentiate between stupid ideas and good ones. Managers often think they know the difference, but “stupid” ideas are often mislabeled. Organizations are good at teaching new employees to be quiet and stop asking questions, but it’s good to listen to them — why are things done a certain way? Is there a better option? It’s a good idea to pay attention, especially if a certain question comes up repeatedly.

Read next: Digital transformation has evolved. Here’s what’s new.

For more info Sara Brown Senior News Editor and Writer