Answer or Hypothesis?

Last week, we explored the power of a simple word “WHY” and the impact it can make on decision  making, strategy and life in general. 

Continually asking the question WHY, until we can go no further, narrows the frame of reference so that you can get to and answer – or does it?

Some questions have no answers

Simple questions have answers. For instance: Is Washington D.C. the capital of the United States of America.?   The answer is Yes, it is.  The answer is one that most of us know and can be supported in many ways by looking on the Internet, at a map, or in an atlas. Questions that speak to past actions also may be answered definitively in many cases.  For instance: Was John F. Kennedy the 35th President of the United States.  The answer again, Yes, he was

But when we seek answers to forward looking questions, the answer is almost always conditional. We make assumptions, project future events, and anticipate outcomes.  But rarely do we have answers.  We plan for the future based on a hypothesis.

Merriam Webster defines the word hypothesis as follows:

1 a : an assumption or concession made for the sake of argument

    b : an interpretation of a practical situation or condition taken as the ground for action
2 : a tentative assumption made in order to draw out and test its logical or empirical consequences
3 : the antecedent clause of a conditional statement

synonyms hypothesis, theory, law mean a formula derived by inference from scientific data that explains a principle operating in nature. hypothesis implies insufficient evidence to provide more than a tentative explanation <a hypothesis explaining the extinction of the dinosaurs>. theory implies a greater range of evidence and greater likelihood of truth <the theory of evolution>. law implies a statement of order and relation in nature that has been found to be invariable under the same conditions <the law of gravitation>.

“Based on our current thinking…”

A friend of mine, Morris Callaman,  is a venture law attorney, a founder’s counsel, and a very successful angel investor. When we work together on projects, he is the usually the first to temper my enthusiasm and certainly with a very important phrase:  “Based on our current thinking…”  And he is  always correct.  While I might do a great job of structuring assumptions, modeling cash flows, forecasting consumer behavior, and laying out a strategy for the team, future events are just that, future events.  Variations in the world around us, new opportunities, and unexpected hurdles all can impact the eventual results.  The business plan is not an answer.  It is a hypothesis that is tested by the team over time.  Only at the end of our business experiment, when we measure the outcome, will we have the actual answer. 

Don’t confuse confidence with certainty

As leaders, we must inspire confidence in those we work with.  Their lives, livelihoods, and aspirations are directly affected by the direction we set along the journey.  If we can not display the confidence necessary to engender our team’s trust, they are unlikely to go the distance with us.  But long term success depends our our ability to not confuse our own confidence with a sense of certainty.  When we are CERTAIN we have an absolute answer to a complex question, we do ourselves and our teams a disservice.  Leading, innovating, and growing all hinge on change.  We can postulate, model, and plan for outcomes, but we must always take into account that outcomes will be the result of actual events and our actions, not what we modeled months before.  Our job as leaders is to continually test our hypotheses, adjust for variables, and inspire trust in our teams so that they can deliver the best possible outcomes.  For only later will we know if we actually had the right answer.

So next time you are  faced with  a question…

ask yourself, is this an answer or a hypothesis?    It might change the way you look at where you are and where you and your team are heading and the steps you will take along the way.


Thanks for stopping by.  Stay Tuned…

Joan Koerber-Walker

Posted in Innovation, Leadership.