Matt's Articles

Hope or Hypothesis


Who has heard this: I hope I can lose weight before the wedding? I hope we come in under budget this quarter? I hope people will go along with this change? Maybe I should have started with, “who has said this?” because I think that we all have at one point or another. I know I certainly have. When I say it or I hear someone say it I will often correct them or myself with that classic phrase “Hope is not a strategy!” It’s a cold but true statement. What do we really mean when we say, “I hope…,” why do we use the statement so often? Is it a bad? Is there something better?

Hope, as defined by Merriam-Webster is:

“to desire with expectation of obtainment or fulfillment”

“to expect with confidence: TRUST

“desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment”

From the definition, there is nothing inherently bad. We all have expectations. We have a tendency to be confident in our expectations. We all desire fulfillment, weight loss, financial targets, being liked, or well thought of. All of these thoughts provide the potential to move us in a positive direction. That is a good thing, but it is just potential. This is where the problem lies. “Hope” is a trigger word for me. Not the kind of trigger word where I need to go to my safe space (its a bench down by the Fox River, just in case anyone is searching). For me, it is a trigger that suggests someone desires an outcome but is not sure exactly how to get there. We use the word so often because there is so much that we simply can’t be sure of or predict. It is okay that hope is not a strategy. The problem presents itself when I see a strategy that is the only hope. This is not good enough to meet the target, to change the organization, to see through to your goals. Where are the specifics? Where are the checks? I like to ask people, “are we serious about this or are we just hoping?” You see it is okay not to know, but we need to be brave, think deeply, and make some guesses that we can test out. This way we can get to the root issue much faster. Unfortunately, I spend too much time trying to evaluate whether there is a real plan behind the desired outcome or if we are just working off of hope.

Rather than simply saying that hope is not a strategy we must ask, so what is the hypothesis? A hypothesis is a much more meaningful and helpful way to achieve what we hope.

Hypothesis as defined by Merriam-Webster

assumption or concession made for the sake of argument”

“an interpretation of a practical situation or condition taken as the ground for action”

“a tentative assumption made in order to draw out and test its logical or empirical consequences”

Let’s do some compare and contrast. In the definition of hope I see words like “desire” and “belief.” The words are whimsical but they don’t provide any confidence that something will actually occur. In the hypothesis definition, I see words like “logical” “empirical” and my favorite phrase here is “grounds for action.” This phrase gets to the heart of the matter. Hope is a good thing, but it does not present grounds for action. It is simply an untested assumption which may lead to a false expectation. Catch yourself when you make the statement, I hope this will happen or I hope that will happen… Ask yourself, based on what actions am I expecting this outcome, that I hope for. Why do I think these actions will create the outcome? If you can answer these questions, then this is more than hope, it’s a hypothesis. And you will eventually have validation of your assumption. That’s great.

If you cannot answer these questions, then stop and revise your expectations. Think deeply about your actions. Identify what may be a false assumption and look for ways to test it. More specifically, if you need to meet a budget target, ask what are the major drivers of spending. What changes do I need to make to meet the target? What unexpected challenges could arise? How do I measure progress so that I know if my actions and assumptions are leading me to the expectations? We can do the same thing with the weight loss example. What is causing weight gain in my diet? If I change that do I see an effect? What activities, events, challenges throw me off of my plan? How can I protect myself from them?

Hope can let us see the possibilities, but we need to make hypotheses to get there. Make your hypothesis and test them. You may not achieve the expectation the first time but you will learn. And with that learning, you will get closer to your goal. I guarantee you will never hope your way there, but you can hypothesize the path.