Asserting the Answer – A Common Pitfall of Effective Problem Solving

You know what they say about assumptions, right?

One particular quote from one of my favorite action movies, the Steven Seagal classic Under Siege 2: Dark Territory comes to mind, but it’s not appropriate to repeat here.

Instead, we’ll turn to the brilliant Albert Einstein who is quoted as once saying…

Assumptions are made and most assumptions are wrong.”

One issue I’ve run into dozens of times with executives and other decision-makers is the tendency to assume they know the answer to a question or a problem without first hearing all of the details of what’s going to be discussed.

When this happens to me or I hear about it from someone else, I can’t help but wonder if they purchased a customized “jump to conclusions mat” like the one shown in the classic satire movie Office Space.

Okay, that’s my last movie reference for today, I promise.

All kidding aside, making assumptions has the potential to be very damaging, especially in today’s volatile world.

Therefore, when reading the book Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill that Changes Everything, it was not surprising to see “assumptions” or “asserting the answer” as a common pitfall of effective problem solving.

In the book, authors Charles Conn and Robert McLean discuss how this pitfall manifests itself with the analogy “I’ve seen this before” or something similar. Respondents will jump to conclusions on a particular question or problem without testing, data, and other information to see if the solution is a good fit for the “problem” at hand.

In my own experience, during a gathering to discuss a newly identified risk, I would introduce the topic and before I could give any details, people in the room, oftentimes executives, would begin rattling off a laundry list of mitigations and other steps to address the risk/issue without having any context. Before I can explain how the risk is connected to a particular strategic goal so they can filter their response, we have to spend even more time sifting through each step they just rattled off, which of course is time consuming.

Not only can this pitfall lead to wasted time and resources, it can also lead to poor decisions and outcomes.

We all engage in problem solving in one respect or another, but most of us don’t do it in a systematic way. While we may be good at one or two aspects of this critical skill, nearly all of us are going to struggle in other areas.

In prior times, complex problem solving was considered to be relevant to only a few professions in the science, engineering, and management consulting fields. Today it is considered a top skill companies need to survive and thrive in the decades ahead, but as the authors of Bulletproof Problem Solving explain:

Although the book uses this particular phrase, we could easily exchange “problem solving” for risks and opportunities. After all, these are just “problems” or “issues” to address right?

But to adequately address the pitfall of assuming or asserting the answer, you and executives have to understand its root cause.

The topic of root cause analysis in the context of risk is something I’ve discussed often through the years. Understanding what is ultimately driving a risk or issue is a critical part of determining the right solution.

When it comes to asserting the answer or making assumptions, the reasons why we tend to do this are rooted in particular biases we all carry with us, specifically:

  • Confirmation bias
  • Availability bias
  • Anchoring bias

I explore these more in the article 29 Biases and Traps that Prevent Good Decision-Making, so I invite you to check out that post for more on these specific biases.

Addressing these root causes of assuming or asserting the answer is no easy task, because as explained in the book Decision Quality: Value Creation from Better Business Decisions:

We are wired to reject evidence that conflicts with existing beliefs, and to retain evidence that confirms those same beliefs.”

While it may seem like a daunting thing to change though, the best place to start is to sit back and listen – to resist the temptation to jump up and act like you know the right answer without first hearing all of the facts and figures. Taking the effort to actively listen and interpret tone and body language is one of the cornerstones of effective risk conversations.

Developing effective problem-solving skills and avoiding pitfalls like the one described above is more important now than ever, especially when you consider the turmoil of inflation, pandemic, and war plaguing today’s world.

At the end of the day, assuming you know the right answer or right way to move forward without first understanding the context can lead to disastrous consequences, regardless of whether it is you in your capacity as a risk professional or among executives and other decision-makers. Taking steps to identify, understand, and address will be critical for ensuring your company’s future success.

Do executives and other decision makers in your organization fall into this common pitfall of effective problem solving and decision making?

One other way to address this type of problem is to learn how peers across industries are handling it.

To share your thoughts on this important topic, please feel free to leave a comment below, join the conversation on LinkedIn, or email me directly (…and privately) at

And if your company is struggling with this or other areas of effective problem solving, please don’t hesitate to reach out or schedule a meeting today to discuss your specific situation and potential solutions to your challenges.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Sign Up For Our Newsletter


Meet Carol

Helping companies achieve their vision and strategy, and succeeding in today's turbulent world, is something I'm honored to be a part of. Whether you're an occasional blog visitor or a long-term client, thank you for letting us be a part of your journey.

Most Recent Posts

The 12 Days of ERM Christmas

Without a doubt, one of my family’s favorite holidays is Christmas. Part of the fun, especially for our son, is seeing what “Santa” brought, but most importantly, we treasure the spirit of peace and goodwill the season brings. And after what seemed to be a never-ending warm spell, the weather is expected to be good…

Read More

Don’t Let Goals and Initiatives Be Blindsided by External Events

As the end of the year draws near, I think we’d all agree that while it wasn’t without its challenges, this year also wasn’t quite as turbulent as the previous two. While a lot of people are juggling company parties, shopping for friends and family, and special activities for the kids, most companies are putting…

Read More

Going the Distance: Ensuring Successful Execution of Strategic and Annual Initiatives

Strategic planning is a challenge – of all people, I understand… After all the meetings, risk and data analysis, and brainstorming of the preceding months, it’s tempting to think this is the end of the road and you can relax. Contrary to this common perception though, this is exactly not the time to relax, but…

Read More

Avoid Rookie Mistakes and Protect your Internal Reputation

Be honest – have you ever done something that you soon realized was a real rookie mistake? Me raising my hand… Considering the nature of ERM’s role to ask questions and challenge assumptions (often during conversations with executives), it can be argued that, in at least some cases, the expectations bar for risk professionals is…

Read More

ERM at Thanksgiving – An Illustration of Risk Management in Action

On occasion, I like to take some of the concepts we risk professionals think about in our jobs and apply them to different personal situations…take some of the same concepts we use when working with executives to develop corporate strategy and manage risks or uncertainty around that strategy. It’s Thanksgiving week in the U.S. –…

Read More

Why Quantitative Risk Assessment is Not Just the Best But the Only Option – A Conversation

Periodically, I have the pleasure of speaking one-on-one with Hans Læssøe on a variety of topics around ERM, strategic risk, and other issues and trends. As you know from my previous conversations (here, here) and posts featuring his work, Hans was formerly a practitioner at the iconic LEGO Company, but even more notably, is a…

Read More

The Three Lines Model – 3 Reasons Why I Don’t Like It

Everyone likes a clear-cut template that offers an easy way to create or manage something…I mean what’s not to like about a step-by-step process for accomplishing what you want? Sometimes this can work without any issues, such as the case with the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK), ISO 9001 standard, or a new cooking…

Read More

5 Avenues for Expanding your ERM Knowledge

One thing I was taught to appreciate from a young age was the value of education and knowledge. It didn’t necessarily matter what the subject was, just that I always maintain a learning or growth mindset regardless of my current status in life. This mindset has served me well over the years, and it’s a…

Read More

Storytelling and Risk Management – Developing Skills that Technology Cannot Replace

It’s amazing how technology has developed and changed our working world over time. Imagine trying to run my risk and strategy consulting firm without tools like Zoom, Box, Slack, and other ERM-specific technology tools. There is no way we would be able to serve our clients the way that we do. Just consider how the…

Read More

3 Phases to Creating and Launching an ERM Program Focused on Organizational Success

If you’ve been handed the task of creating an ERM program for your organization, let me first offer my congratulations quickly followed by my empathy for the task ahead of you. I don’t say that to scare you but to provide a small dose of reality. Building, launching, and refining an ERM program that is…

Read More