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Are you being locked up by your assumptions?

The plight of Mrs Irene Clennell is a sad one. The Sunday Times reported that Mrs Clennell is sitting in detention at this very moment, fight deportation from England back to Singapore. Mrs Clennell has been charged with flouting immigration rules, and has been an illegal immigrant in the UK since 1999. Arising from a routine immigration inspection, Mrs Clennell was detained on January 20th this year, and has been torn away from her family. Mrs Clennell's plight actually began more than two decades ago.

Mrs Clennell met her husband in 1990 in a pub. They got married in the UK, and have two sons together. At that time, as the spouse of a British citizen, Mrs Clennell was granted an Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) by the immigration authorities, allowing her to remain in the UK for an indefinite amount of time. However, in 1992, she decided to return to Singapore with her family to seek employment and live here. They stayed here till 1998, when her husband, John, and their two children, returned to the UK. Mrs Clennell remained in Singapore until 1999 to take care of her ailing mother, returning to the UK only after the latter passed on.

However, by that time, her ILR has been revoked, because one clear stipulation was that she could not be away from the UK for more than 2 years. She was away for seven. She had since been applying for a new ILR, each time paying the 500-pounds fee, but had been rejected each time. She has thus become an illegal alien in the country.

Said Mrs Clennell, "At that time, I thought it would be easy to apply for another ILR."

Unfortunately, Mrs Clennell's assumption landed her in jail.

We all make assumptions

Yet Mrs Clennell is not alone in trusting her assumptions. Almost all of us make assumptions on a daily basis. Assumptions allow us to simplify our lives, and cut short the mental processes that would otherwise take too long to come to a definite conclusion. Most of the time, our assumptions are right. Yet being right provides us with a false sense of self-confidence. Simply being right about the assumptions within your span of control does not necessarily translate to being right about things outside of it. But as we keep on being right, we apply this to bigger and bigger things, until we border on the reckless. This is how catastrophic events occur; when tiny assumptions add up to one big one.

A case in point - US's invasion of Iraq on the assumption of the possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Not only were they wrong, they committed the lives of many US soldiers who would otherwise be alive today, and created a new geopolitical landscape, one that could not even have been contemplated! Had the assumption been thoroughly questioned and proven wrong, there might have been a different world order in the Middle East today. But because the NSA and other intelligence agencies were so confident that their assumptions were right, they got into a war that not only deposed Saddam Hussein but created a power vacuum that brought about the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). What a fatal assumption that was! So it was the assumption that WMDs were in Iraq; the assumption that Iraq post-Saddam would be good for the region; and the assumption that peace can come to the region following the invasion. A collection of not-so-tiny assmptions that caused the tsunami of problems we are now seeing.

What can we do about assumptions?

So what can we do, if assumptions are a basic human behaviour? Well, we need to slow down, think through possibilities, and assess the risks of each of our actions - especially actions that have a strategic impact on our lives.

How can we tell what actions have a strategic impact? Three criteria you can use:

(1) does it affect many people? If your action impacts just you, or just your team, and no one else, then it is less strategic.

(2) does it have a high opportunity cost? What are you giving up in pursuing this course of action? Everything comes with an opportunity cost, and we need to be very clear that about we are foregoing before we decide to go down a path.

(3) does it have a future impact? If your action has only a momentary impact - like eating pizza for lunch - then it is not very strategic. But if there is a future impact - your health, or your weight - then the decision becomes more strategic. This therefore means that you need to be very discerning about your actions, and look deeper into the issues than with a superficial thought.

How to look deeper?

We seldom try to identify our assumptions. When we have an idea, we normally go headlong into it. We brush aside limiting thoughts (assumptions) because we were told not to be a wet blanket when it comes to opportunities - don't kill an idea with negative thoughts; let them grow. Yet there may already lurk a limiting assumption, an opportunity killer there, and by refusing to call it, and refusing to recognise its impact, you are being irresponsible to your own thinking, and to the opportunity. You might throw good money for bad, and then finally realise that you were over-confident, over-optimistic in ignoring the assumptions. A rather expensive endeavour, don't you think?

So how do we give our assumptions the due recognition in our decision making process?

(1) List down all the assumptions you have in consideration of your action - every single one of them (even if they seem insignificant!)

(2) Paint the three scenarios: best-case, worst-case and most-likely case. The best case scenario is one where all the assumptions are right; and the worst case is one where all the assumptions were wrong. Now I know, the probability of each of these coming true can be very miniscule. But the point is, it can. The current global warming phenomenon was far worse that the worst-case scenario just ten years ago! So don't discount these as mere conjecture. They could happen.

The most-likely case scenario is not the middle of the two scenarios. Taking each assumption, you then paint what is most likely to occur based on the current situation. When you put all those together, you would have painted the most-likely scenario.

(3) Assess the risk. This is the most important part, one that is seldom done. First look at the spread between the best case and worst. How wide is it? The wider the spread, the more variability your idea has. This means that many outcomes can be borne from it, and when you are planning for the future, you might want to avoid one that has such great variations.

Next, look at your most likely case. How close it is to the best or worst case? If it was close to the best, then you can go at it with greater confidence. But if it is closer to the worst, then it may not be a bet worth taking. Unless of course you can underwrite the worst with no difficulty (remember opportunity cost?). If that were the case, then, you can go headlong into the decision, even as you try to avoid the worst as far as you can.

Don't take your assumptions too lightly

Mrs Clennell is paying a very steep price for her assumptions, and it couldn't come at a worse time - post-Brexit. But hopefully compassion and reason will prevail here and reunite Mrs Clennell with her family. Her plight should remind us that if we ignore or take our assumptions too lightly, the consequences will come back to haunt us. So let this be fair reminder to you, dear reader, that we must never take our assumptions too lightly lest we too pay an exorbitant price for ignorance.

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