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Mountians and Lake

Filling in the Blanks


When we don’t fully understand something, we fill in the blanks with information we know from other, similar situations. That may be a good way to use current knowledge, but it assumes that knowledge is always applicable. 


Immediately, you can see the problem. Someone’s behavior changes and we’ve heard that the spouse went back to school, so we assume that must be the reason. A project is cancelled and we know what that means. 


What happens when our assumptions, expectations and explanations are wrong? What if the change in behavior is because someone is ill, not because someone is in school? Wouldn’t we respond differently if we knew the real reason?  What if we really don’t know why the project is cancelled and something wonderful is about to happen instead of something awful? Wouldn’t sympathizing with people on their bad luck be a bit premature (and demonstrate that we are out of that particular information loop as well)? 


Acting on assumptions and expectations which may be inaccurate or ill-informed results in decisions and behavior that are equally ill-informed. Decisions and behavior based on old or bad information take us down roads that can sink projects or products, can destroy working relationships instead of supporting them, and can force us to interpret changes without really understanding them. We look back instead of forward, lose track of or ignore trends and new information, and make ourselves comfortable with doing what worked before. We’re so sure we know the answer. So were Kodak, Polaroid, AT&T and Xerox. 


What to do instead? 
Don’t assume complete understanding. Look for differences among situations instead of similarities. Even though the overt behavior may be similar, the reasons for the behavior may be different, thus requiring different responses. Ask yourself if you really know everything there is to know and focus on what’s missing.

Don’t expect a particular impact. Maybe the result of one situation was negative, but maybe in this case there are just enough differences to make the result positive. If you don’t know the differences, you can’t assume a particular outcome.

Don’t simply accept the accuracy of the information you receive. Ask appropriate questions to get current, accurate information, and don’t feel bad about challenging the source (politely, of course).


Every time we fill in the gaps of our understanding with information we already have, we preclude ourselves from learning something new. That doesn’t mean every situation is completely different from the one that preceded it. Gravity won’t go away, and water won’t pour up instead of down, at least here on Earth. However, sometimes it’s dark because the sun has set, and sometimes it’s dark because the smoke from the fire has overwhelmed the light. The key is to know when to focus on similarity and when to focus on difference. Almost always, it’s a good bet to do a little of both.

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