Leadership: Why ‘hypothesis’ is an excellent way to phrase ideas
When I started managing a team, I would often say, “I believe that adding this feature X would increase conversion by 10%” in my team meetings. In one such meeting, my mentor, who had offered to help me with my leadership style highlighted how right phrasing is extremely important to fostering a culture of collaboration, brainstorming, and ideation.
She asked, “What happens when you start a sentence with I believe …”. I was confused. I had no clue what she meant. I thought that by saying ‘I believe…’ I was putting my ideas across confidently so that others could feel comfortable in taking those ideas and developing or proposing a better one. She then highlighted how she mostly used, “My hypothesis is that …” to phrase ideas where she needed other team members to collaborate, counter-argue, and or test by running the experiment. And only used, “I believe that …” when there was no way to experiment or test the validity and the team was looking for a direction or a decision to be made.
The hypothesis is ‘a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.’ Hypothesis testing is not new to product managers; we do this all the time. Unfortunately, we don't use it beyond experiment testing. The question that I asked myself was could I also use it to phrase feature ideas and similar such views?
This small change to my phrasing has led me to encourage more dialogues in my 1-on-1 with team members, more participation in team meetings, and better signaling in presentations when talking about topics that I was not sure of but wanted to explore further. But why so?
‘Belief is your identity’ — When you say “I believe that …” — You associate yourself with the idea. Now when the idea is wrong, you are wrong. When someone wants to challenge the idea, they will have to challenge you. This shuts down the possibility of a discussion. I am not saying this is how you want this to be portrayed but truth is that this is how it gets portrayed.
No wonder when many team members hear this, they shut down. They do not want to show data that proves otherwise to the leader. They feel that by showing counter-arguments, they would end up proving the leader wrong.
‘Hypothesis’ on the other hand has an inherent notion that it needs to be validated. It thus separates ideas and opinions from facts.
A hypothesis is an assumption, an idea that is proposed for the sake of argument so that it can be tested to see if it might be true.
It could either be true or false; it could either be accepted or rejected. Now when people want to challenge your hypothesis they are not challenging you, they are helping you validate the hypothesis. This is why when you say ‘My hypothesis is that …’, you are signaling collaboration. Now team members, who have data to prove otherwise, are more open to sharing data or counter-views that can help test the hypothesis.
Drop any qualifier with the word hypothesis — At times, a few leaders also use the phrasing, “I have a strong hypothesis …” — this is no different than ‘I believe..’. Hypotheses are not weak or strong. They are either true or false. By associating the word ‘Strong’, we signal that I am already convinced that this cannot be wrong. If you really have data to justify that, by all means, but if it is an early ideation process where you are open to other views from your team members, it is better to drop the word ‘Strong’.
Avoid the commitment trap — More importantly, this phrasing also signals to your own mind that the conjecture that you are stating is just a hypothesis and not a ground truth, so you could explore other signs that can help validate or reject your confirmation bias. This, in turn, avoids the commitment trap discussed here.
Leadership is all about ‘signaling’ — Signaling empathy, collaboration, confidence, and inclusion.
Conjecture to hypothesis to ground truth to Consensus is what leaders traverse every day, let us be inclusive of ideas, thoughts, and counter-arguments. So like me, if you have also been used to saying, “I believe that …” to state your ideas, let us try the phrasing, “My hypothesis is that … ” and see if that brings the change that it brought to my life.
If you disagree with this article or if you have an instance do share it with me here or on linkedin.