The Importance of Testing Assumptions
Updated: Nov 12, 2019
Blake Mycoskie, the US-based founder of TOMS Shoes, travelled to Argentina in 2006, when he noticed underprivileged children growing up without shoes. Deeply moved, he returned home and founded a shoe company with a unique business model, for each pair of shoes sold, one pair would be donated to an underprivileged child over the world.
However, the company has recently come into fire for its shortcomings. Amanda Taub of Vox explained that this one-for-one model is unsustainable, where the impact only lasts for as long as the product does. Further, the model encourages aid dependency in impoverished areas, creating reliance on outside forces.
TOMS Shoes reacted to these criticisms by conducting research of their own, finding that aid dependency increased from 66% to 79% for recipients of the donations. Further, the company found that this model discouraged families to source shoes from local producers, in fact, using the TOMS Shoes donations to replace old pairs of shoes.
TOMS took action, the company worked to ensure that one-third of their production takes place in the communities they donate to – creating a boom in local businesses, while reducing aid dependency. Further, the sales of sunglasses were used to fund corrective procedures for the visually impaired in these communities, which proved to be a more pressing issue.
This case study is a perfect example of the importance of testing assumptions. It is time consuming and expensive to start an NGO or social enterprise, it is vital to conduct comprehensive research before jumping in with narrow-sighted assumptions. These assumptions should also be testing through the lifetime of an organization, to ensure that it is not straying off its path.
There are 2 broad steps along the way of testing preconceived assumptions:
What are your assumptions?
What is the social problem you hope that your organization will overcome?
What will your organization do to solve this problem?
Based on your answers to these questions, write your assumptions. It’s helpful to state your assumptions as hypotheses. An example of a possible hypotheses:
Many people are hungry; they lack the calories they need.
The problem is that not enough food is getting to food banks to feed people who are hungry.
If food banks receive additional food, people who are poor and hungry will lead happier, healthier lives.
How can you test your assumptions?
Once you have written down your assumptions, it is time to conduct research to ensure that you are on the right path.
Who are the people who have professional expertise regarding the problem you hope to tackle (eg. Professors, doctors, social workers)? How can find people with this expertise? When you correspond with people with relevant professional expertise, ask them to give you feedback on your assumptions. What do you have right? What are you missing?
How can you find second-hand research related to the problem you hope to tackle?
Reach out to people and organisations are already working on the ground to help solve the problems you are interested in? How would they describe the problem?
How can you learn directly from the people whose lives you hope to improve? Who do you know who has experienced the problem you are interested in? What is their personal experience? How would they describe the challenges they experience? What solution, option, or assistance sounds most appealing to them? What sounds insulting or patronising?
How can you create a pilot test of your approach to see how it well it works? What are specific goals, metrics, or milestones that you hope to achieve – goals, metrics, or milestones that will let you know that your organization is having the impact you hope? What information or results would lead you to change your approach?