Facebook Facebook icon Twitter Twitter icon LinkedIn LinkedIn icon Email
fast life


Test hypotheses, don’t make assumptions when taking a new role

Published 31 October 2023 in Leadership • 7 min read

Leadership transitions are pivotal moments in any leader’s career.  As you step into a new role, the initial days are a valuable opportunity to lay the foundation for the future. However, they also come with pitfalls that can derail even the most seasoned leaders. One such challenge is the tug-of-war between making assumptions based on past experiences and the need to understand and adapt to the realities of your new organization.


In leadership transitions, you must avoid the siren call of premature conclusions while embracing an approach of structured learning. This article will delve into the dangers of making quick assumptions and emphasize the necessity of ‘learning with a point of view,’ a method that promotes formulating and testing hypotheses in an iterative learning loop.

The perils of making assumptions

When stepping into a new role, especially within unfamiliar territories of an organization or industry, one can liken the experience to entering a room with dimmed lights. You discern the outlines, and some familiar patterns might emerge, but the intricate details, the subtle textures, and the nuances remain obscured. The instinct, driven by past experiences and the human mind’s propensity to seek patterns, might lead you to fill in these blanks hastily. Such early conclusions, formulated without a comprehensive view, pose the risk of painting an incomplete, if not distorted, picture. As a leader, these preliminary assumptions are not benign. They influence your initial decisions, set powerful precedents, and can inadvertently start to mold the organization’s culture. Venturing forth based on fragmentary insights can misdirect the entire endeavor, like a captain navigating treacherous waters with an incomplete map.

Moreover, every organization is a unique ecosystem, an intricate interplay of people, processes, and values. Assuming that strategies and methods that worked elsewhere will fit seamlessly into this new setting is risky. While parallels might exist, transposing strategies and methods that bore fruit in a previous role and assuming you will succeed is perilous. This brings us to a pivotal cognitive trap: confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is not merely the inclination to cherry-pick information that aligns with our pre-existing beliefs. It’s a subconscious skewing of perception, a silent orchestrator that often magnifies data supporting our assumptions while conveniently sidelining or rationalizing discordant information. In the context of leadership, this bias can severely distort decision-making, making you blind to potential challenges or innovative opportunities inherent in the new environment.

As a leader, these preliminary assumptions are not benign. They influence your initial decisions, set powerful precedents, and can inadvertently start to mold the organization's culture

Lastly, decisions grounded in assumptions risk eroding the trust of your team. If members feel their realities are not understood or considered, they may become disengaged or even resistant to change. It sows seeds of doubt if they perceive your decisions based on faulty assumptions rather than understanding. This can manifest as disengagement, diminished morale, or active resistance, inhibiting the collective journey toward organizational success.

Embracing ‘learning with a point of view’

As you enter your new role, focus on ‘learning with a point of view’ and testing hypotheses rather than jumping to conclusions. This process is not just about passive absorption; it’s a dynamic interplay between observation, hypothesis formation, and validation.

Imagine you’re trying to understand the lay of the room. Instead of making impulsive judgments based on the dim outlines, you pose a structured hypothesis. For example, upon noticing a recent downturn in sales, you might hypothesize, “The decline in sales is potentially due to a decrease in our primary market segment.” While based on preliminary data and observations, this hypothesis is not a definitive conclusion. It’s a starting point, an essential aspect of reality you’re setting out to either confirm or refute.

The subsequent step is of paramount importance – actively validating your hypothesis. This might involve delving deep into granular sales figures, holding brainstorming sessions with the sales and marketing teams, or engaging in direct dialogues with customers to glean insights. Each conversation, each data point, and each feedback either adds weight to your hypothesis or points towards an alternate reality.

Failure is an inherent part of any learning process.

The beauty of ‘learning with a point of view’ lies in its structured approach and inherent adaptability. As evidence surfaces to challenge or uphold your initial assumptions, you can recalibrate, refine, and redirect. Instead of static conclusions, you foster a dynamic understanding that evolves with the incoming information. 

Ultimately, this method grounds your conclusions in the firm bedrock of reality and instills a culture of continuous learning. By adopting this approach, you position yourself to respond with agility to your new role’s complex and ever-changing landscape, ensuring that your strategies and decisions are both informed and adaptive.

The continuous loop of structured learning

Learning when taking on a new role is best thought of as a continuous, where each conclusion is not an endpoint but a springboard to the next exploration. The resultant understanding should naturally trigger further inquiries and hypotheses as you validate or disprove a hypothesis. When consistently engaged, this iterative cycle guarantees an evolving and deepening comprehension of the challenges and opportunities in your role.

Picture an upward spiral, expanding as it progresses. At its center is the first hypothesis. As you venture outwards, each turn represents a new question or understanding that emerges from the previous one. This spiral is not just representative of a personal learning trajectory but also a collective journey. 

Avoid the pitfalls of early assumptions and commit to a structured, hypothesis-driven approach to learning

Structured learning is not a solo endeavor. You must involve your team in this process. Share your hypotheses with them, seek their input, and encourage them to adopt a similar approach in their functions. This will generate diverse perspectives, enhance the depth of collective learning, and foster a culture of inquiry where assumptions are continuously challenged and refined.

Proposed figure: A visual representation of an expanding spiral can effectively capture the essence of this concept. At the core of the spiral would be the initial hypothesis. As the spiral expands outward, there can be various markers denoting validation/refutation, new hypothesis, team Input, and expanded understanding. This will depict the continuous nature of the learning process and the collaborative aspect of including team inputs to enrich the journey. 

Challenges in implementing ‘learning with a point of view’ 

When leaders transition into new roles, they often encounter resistance from existing teams or colleagues who are accustomed to the old way of doing things. Adapting a structured hypothesis testing approach may face pushback from those who prefer the comfort of familiar routines. To overcome this challenge, formulate hypotheses that address the root causes of resistance. For instance, if resistance is high, you might hypothesize that team members feel their expertise is undervalued in the new approach. Test this hypothesis by seeking feedback and crafting strategies to involve them more effectively.

Leaders are frequently under pressure to deliver results quickly in their new roles. Implementing a structured hypothesis testing process can be time-consuming, potentially conflicting with the urgency to make decisions and demonstrate impact. To address this issue, hypothesize about early wins in your new role. For instance, you might hypothesize that optimizing a specific process could yield immediate results. Test this hypothesis by implementing targeted changes and monitoring their impact.

Failure is an inherent part of any learning process. Leaders should be encouraged to share their experiences of when their initial hypotheses were proven wrong and how they adapted their strategies accordingly. Learning from failures and setbacks can be just as valuable as learning from successes. When facing setbacks, form hypotheses that explore the reasons behind the failure. For example, if a new strategy did not yield the expected results, hypothesize that the execution might have been flawed due to a lack of team alignment. Use this hypothesis to guide discussions and actions aimed at improving execution in future endeavors. 


When taking a new role, the temptation to rely on the tried and tested is ever-present, especially when entering an unfamiliar situation. But as you embark on this journey, you must remember that every organization, no matter how similar it may appear on the surface, has its nuances, unique challenges, and distinct opportunities.

To truly succeed, genuinely make an impact, and earn your team’s trust and respect, you must strike a balance. Avoid the pitfalls of early assumptions and commit to a structured, hypothesis-driven approach to learning. In doing so, you will set yourself up for success in your new role and create a culture that values curiosity, critical thinking, and continuous improvement. 


Millan Alvarez-Miranda

Millán Alvarez-Miranda

Leadership Consultant at Genesis Advisers, Program Director at ESADE, and Lead Coach at IMD

Millán is a Senior strategy consultant, C-level advisor and coach, and leadership professor, with 20 years of experience as General Manager and CEO of global businesses, in multiple industries: Distribution, Health Sciences, Infrastructures, Energy and Office Products. He provided The First 90 Days acceleration programs at IMD for new-to role executives.

Peter Fennah

Peter Fennah

CEO and Chartered Occupational Psychologist at Career Synergy

Peter is a Lead Executive Coach and Supervisor with over 14,000 coaching hours. He offers 24 years experience of leadership and career transition services up to global C-suite. Peter has also provided online The First 90 days acceleration programs at IMD for new-to-role executives.

Michael Watkins - IMD Professor

Michael D. Watkins

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD

Michael D Watkins is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD, and author of The First 90 Days, Master Your Next Move, Predictable Surprises, and 12 other books on leadership and negotiation. His book, The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking, explores how executives can learn to think strategically and lead their organizations into the future. A Thinkers 50-ranked management influencer and recognized expert in his field, his work features in HBR Guides and HBR’s 10 Must Reads on leadership, teams, strategic initiatives, and new managers. Over the past 20 years, he has used his First 90 Days® methodology to help leaders make successful transitions, both in his teaching at IMD, INSEAD, and Harvard Business School, where he gained his PhD in decision sciences, as well as through his private consultancy practice Genesis Advisers. At IMD, he directs the First 90 Days open program for leaders taking on challenging new roles and co-directs the Transition to Business Leadership (TBL) executive program for future enterprise leaders.


Learn Brain Circuits

Join us for daily exercises focusing on issues from team building to developing an actionable sustainability plan to personal development. Go on - they only take five minutes.
Read more 

Explore Leadership

What makes a great leader? Do you need charisma? How do you inspire your team? Our experts offer actionable insights through first-person narratives, behind-the-scenes interviews and The Help Desk.
Read more

Join Membership

Log in here to join in the conversation with the I by IMD community. Your subscription grants you access to the quarterly magazine plus daily articles, videos, podcasts and learning exercises.
Sign up

Log in or register to enjoy the full experience

Explore first person business intelligence from top minds curated for a global executive audience