Why I Love Hypotheses

If you work with us for more than 10 minutes, you know that we are big fans of action hypotheses – those “if/then” statements about what we expect to happen if an action is taken.

I see them everywhere. Or, to be more accurate, I see mostly half of a hypothesis everywhere. In a recent Boston Globe editorial (9/5/13), Harvard Economist Edward Glaeser observes that “Crime rates fall when there are more police officers. Boosting the number of cops in neighborhoods helps ensure that crime stops long before an arrest.” You may agree or disagree, but by putting out his argument so clearly, the reader is invited to do just that – to walk around in the idea and try it on for size.

But I also see hypotheses in strategies and action plans; in outcome statements and theories of change and logic models and “lessons learned.” And that’s where I see half-hypotheses most often:  “Ensure that all decisions are data-driven.” Sounds good, but why? “To be successful, initiatives must establish a high level of community engagement.” Successful in what way? “We need to strive for equality.” What would that look like and what is it going to take to get there?

Half-hypotheses like these can cause a lot of grief for people trying to achieve big, complex change goals in environments with lots of moving parts. People can think they agree about what “high community engagement” looks like or what it’s supposed to achieve, but really be working from very different playbooks. Half-hypotheses can shift the definition of “success” to be about completing a task, rather than achieving an outcome. Half-hypotheses can result in the over-institutionalization of “best practices” (e.g., data-driven decision-making). The “then” is simply assumed to be good in all situations. These assumed best practices can take lots of time to implement and can sometimes make it difficult to explore outside of the boundaries into creative territory.

In the world of action – where we do something because we expect a result, hypotheses are a fundamental building block of our thinking process. We couldn’t operate without them. You can argue about whether something is a mid-term outcome or a short-term result; an input or an output; a vision or a mission, a strategy or a tactic. But to us, it’s all hypotheses all the way down. If you look at the world that way, then learning how to use hypotheses well is a very simple and elegant way to improve your ability to think strategically and take effective action – especially when it involves working as a team with other people or organizations.

So the next time you hear a “we must…” or “we need to…,” ask what that will help us accomplish (to get at the “then” part of the hypothesis). If you hear people asking you to get behind a big, audacious goal, ask what it will take for us to get there (to get at the “if”).

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