The Trouble with Assumptions

I was writing about assumptions for a project management training course and struggling to think of a good example. Fast forward to the first day of a vacation when I stressfully experienced a great example of an assumption and the trouble it can cause.

With two flights, an overnight in Toronto, immigration, and customs, I opted for carry-on luggage. No baggage fees and faster — or so I assumed.

luggageAt the entrance to the jetway, the attendant handed me a gate check tag. I attached the tag to my roller bag, placed it on the cart, and got on the plane without another thought. I assumed the bag was traveling a mere 50 feet from the cart to the belly of the plane and then, in Toronto, would travel another 50 feet from the belly of the plane to my waiting hand on a different jetway.

A few hours later, the baggage handler finished tossing gate-checked bags onto the jetway and I stood there with a disappointed look on my face instead of a roller bag handle in my hand.

I headed for the baggage carousel. Maybe the bag got mixed in with the checked bags. Nope. My only consolation was that several other people were missing luggage as well. Visions of X-Files-esque conspiracies arose. Hmmm. Maybe the airline came up with a different solution to the weight restriction problem they had on the flight…Pull a passenger off or temporarily inconvenience a few passengers with delayed luggage?

As I spoke to the airline folks and filled out a form, I kicked myself about my erroneous assumption. Each person I spoke to asked for the gate check stub. When I admitted I didn’t have it, these people shared the same reaction – a slow, sad shake of the head accompanied by a quiet “That’s going to make it tough.” I felt like an idiot. Then, I wondered whether I had an ID tag on the bag.

At the Toronto airport, this disaster cost about an hour and a half. More annoying, I was on a rare vacation, but stuck in project manager mode. What to buy? Should I rent a car so it’s easier to shop? Shopping for clothes will take more time and cost money—and I HATE to shop.

What makes assumptions so dangerous is that they lull us into thinking things are fine when they might not be; or lead us to believe that we should proceed one way when we should go the other. In many cases, the assumptions and subsequent choices pass by in a moment, so we don’t even realize that there is something to consider.

What can we do to identify assumptions and get them out in the open?

  • Pay attention.
  • Ask questions.
  • What’s happening?
  • Are there other ways to look at the situation?
  • How do you see this process working?
  • How about you?
  • And you?
  • Has something changed?
  • Do my plans still make sense?
  • What are the risks?
  • Are there consequences?

Luckily, this story had a happy ending. When I arrived, I was ready with a list and set to buy a bare minimum to see me through the week. But first, I had to file a delayed baggage report. As I walked toward the baggage counter, my eyes caught on before my brain. There, waiting with several other bags, was my wayward roller bag with a RUSH tag attached.