Reverse Default Setting

For any given situation, you have an assumed default prediction—the way you expect events to play out. Your default prediction is your starting mindset, and like any limited mindset, it is derived from your experience, your perception, and your hope. Because this is your default option, you will naturally seek evidence supporting it without giving too much thought to it. You sort and weigh data based on what you believe to be true.

The default is what we assume or what we do if we do not think about it. It is where our inertia leads us. Reverse default setting comes down to four steps: identify your default prediction, consider the implications if you are wrong about that prediction, design at least one question you will ask when you step into the situation to test your assumption, and identify early warning signs that will indicate your default prediction is incorrect.

Steps in Reverse Default Setting

Step 1: Define Your Default Setting

Consider the question, “What do I expect will happen?” to explicitly reveal and define your default. Every situation has a default expectation. Some common ones include the following:

  • You expect to succeed.
  • You expect a certain person or group of people to be resistant.
  • You expect to enjoy yourself (or alternately you expect to be bored/frustrated/disappointed/something else).
  • You expect to be able to finish your task.
  • You assume you have all the information you need.
  • You anticipate a clear outcome (that is, it will be clear that you succeeded or failed).

Once you’ve identified a default prediction, define the assumed outcome more specifically. What does success look like? What would resistance look like?

Step 2: Reverse Your Default

The question driving this step is this: what if your default-assumed outcome turns out not to be true? Consider what that would look like. How would outcomes be different? Would different stakeholders be involved? What are some reasonable trigger events that could shift reality into this non-default future?

Step 3: Design a Question to Test Your Default Assumption

What question can you ask that will help you test your assumption, and whom will you ask? We often enter new situations and, without thinking, identify how the situation is similar to other situations we’ve experienced because we naturally look for similarity and familiarity. We lean on our experience to make sense of the situation, which also means we are primed for the confirmation bias. If we look for similarity, we will find it, thanks to our well-developed ability to find patterns in any context. However, step 2 and step 3 reverse this tendency. Before slipping into the routine of looking for similarity, we train ourselves to look for differences. Asking how things could turn out to be not as expected is one way to break this routine.

When I step into an executive training session, I first look for something surprising. I’ve likely taught the content hundreds of times. I may have even taught in the same room dozens of times, so it is easy to see the familiar. These are the situations in which it is most important to remember reverse default setting. These are the situations in which you will find yourself blindsided by something unexpected.

Step 4: Identify Early Warning Signs

Step 2 and step 3 shift you into active processing mode. Hopefully, this inquiry reveals something new—potentially something that challenges your assumption about a default outcome. Now identify things to monitor to keep you honest moving forward. What are the early warning signs that the world may not be moving toward the default-predicted outcome? How will you track those signs? How often will you check them?

Short, Simple, Valuable

This is by far the easiest technique to build into your daily routine. Building a habit of asking “What is different here?” and “What would prove me wrong?” may be one of the most powerful ways to keep yourself out of the fundamental leadership trap. You can start practicing this immediately in your next meeting. Do it often enough, and it will become second nature. In addition, you may suddenly find yourself noticing things about your colleagues, your clients, and your surroundings that you had never noticed before.

This description of reverse default setting is adapted from Chapter 11 of Unquestioned Brilliance. For more on this and other strategic leadership techniques see Unquestioned Brilliance: Navigating a Fundamental Leadership Trap.