Hypothesis, questions and the underlying knowledge bases

I will assume that all my readers do actually formulate hypothesis very early on in every project, assignment or investigation that they undertake. We all know that hypothesis is important for us to capture our own bias, beliefs and assumptions. But the formulation of a hypothesis also allows us to involve our colleagues, counterparts and fellow-explorers. Practically you can do this by using little coloured cards. Use one colour for your own hypothesis, and another colour for your colleagues.

The hypothesis is then useful as it gives you clue of where to start your search. In other words, it helps you to formulate some search and research questions. As a hypothesis can only be true or false, your findings will often help you to refine your hypothesis. Sometimes in a 1 or 2 week assignment I even have a Hypothesis reflection session where we can reflect on our new hypothesis.

It is important to remember that although the original hypothesis and the research answers are important, the process of verifying or disproving the hypothesis is even more important. For instance, from an hypothesis “not much manufacturing is happening here” a story can be told about how the research team went about to eventually conclude that “some limited manufacturing is going on here, but it is mainly in food processing”. The story of discovery is also an important finding, as it explains why the hypothesis was not just a fact from the start!


But here is my real question. Where do you get your questions from? 

When I saw this picture on the right in one of those e-mails you get from friends it

What are you basing your questions on?

made me wonder.

How often are people basing their hypothesis on issues that they do not understand at all? Is this possible, and what would the consequence be? The consequence would be that they formulate the wrong questions, or they try to prove something that is not worth proving.

Now you would immediately say that this is not good, and that it should not be tolerated in economic development at all. Yet, often development programmes adopt names with nice titles without understanding the underlying body of knowledge (or the problem), nor do they understand how this specific body of theory relates to other bodies of knowledge. The result is that the law of unintended consequences immediately applies. When you do not understand a specific theory, you are not able to formulate proper questions that will help you diagnose or intervene in a specific field.

Therefore in our training programmes where we develop experts and practitioners we should make sure that practitioners understand the theories underneath our methods. Teaching practitioners how to run a method will not lead to insights that can form a firm bases for diagnosis or intervention design. These underlying theories helps practitioners to formulate better hypothesis. In most cases an hypothesis formulated by a practitioner will be informed by practical experience (things seen elsewhere) and underlying knowledge (knowledge bases) as well as a certain amount of preference.




2 Responses to “Hypothesis, questions and the underlying knowledge bases”

  1. Frank Waeltring Says:

    Dear Shawn,
    I totally agree with your insights and we have to transmit and enrich practitioners more with some detailed and deeper economic understanding. For that we as consultants have also to learn to ask the right questions to them. On the other hand: my impression is that this kind of work is also necessary with many scientists who develop hypotheses without having the practical insight. Thus it is necessary for our work to transmit a deeper theoretical insight for practitioners which is highly relevant to understand better and react more systemic in the real world. Additionally it is necessary to integrate, even sometimes confront, scientists with economic and business realities. Scientists are often very proud on their abilities to approach issues on economic development more “accurate“, more “research-based“. Our experience also tells us that their questions and hypotheses often miss the point totally because they are far away from the real world, and often do not tackle the real change aspects and questions that are related with the realities in which economic action and human interaction in the market occurs.


  2. Recognizing competing hypothesis as complex | Shawn Cunningham's Weblog Says:

    […] insist that any process to diagnose an industry or a region starts with the formulation of various hypothesis. This hypothesis formulation before we commence is not only about revealing our bias, nor only […]


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