Challenging Assumptions

Lately, I’ve been busy.

I currently run MUX, a local music venue in Richland Wa. We focus on regional and local independent music, producing between one and three shows a month. I’ve been learning a ton – not only about the music industry, booking, production, and promotion, but about myself.

Assumptions are essential for effective life-living and thing-building. You can’t do any one thing without having some preconcieved idea about what you should do, or at least how you should learn to do that thing. However, assumptions are only healthy when they are constantly challenged in your own head.

For example: most MUX shows don’t sell many presale tickets. We generally announce the show three weeks in advance, and offer cheaper presale tickets right away. One or two tickets will sell in the first two weeks, but the majority of the ticket sales will be in the last two days before the show. This is generally fine, aside from the fact that it’s difficult to figure out how many people will show up ahead of time.

Two weeks ago, we put on an outdoor festival called TriFest, in connection with a local art/design/tech/entrepreneurship conference called TriConf. Ten bands (all regional medium-sized bands) played over the two nights of TriConf. Two-day wristbands were $35 presale, $40 day of show, and TriConf attendees received free wristbands. Leading up to the festival, wristband sales looked much the same – one or two wristbands sold in the first two weeks of promotion, and a couple more in the last week.

The first night of the show, almost nobody showed up. The attendees from TriConf trickled in and out, but a grand total of a dozen festival-goers made it out that night. It felt like an utter failure, and I didn’t know why.

Later that night, I was taken aside by a good friend and fellow MUX teammate. He told me that he honestly felt that the ticket price had scared off a lot of folks, and that would account for the dissapointing turnout that night. This didn’t come as a shock to me – I had worried about the ticket price – but I realized that my unchallenged assumptions about ticket sale patterns had prevented me from seeing that the price was too high, and people weren’t going to come.

There’s a good cliche out there: “you can’t know what you don’t know”. Assumptions work off the worst side of that – you feel that you have a grasp on whatever’s at hand, but left unchallenged, you’re completely blind to any potential problems that your assumptions don’t account for.

I’m seeking to break down that wall for myself. I need to be able to see the holes in my assumptions and fill them with the information that is already there, waiting for me to ask the right questions to discover it.

Here’s my plan.

  • start asking myself “what if” questions to find parts of my projects that haven’t been considered, and then
  • learn to find people who may have honest perspective on my projects and ask probing questions to gain that perspective myself.
  • to learn to channel the “irrational” anxious feelings that come with new projects into constructive critiscism of my assumptions
  • to document my failures and reference them often in relation to my current projects

In the end, we made the second night of TriFest free to all, and promoted the crap out of it that day, thanks to feedback and ideas from another member of the MUX team. By personally asking people to invite all their friends, writing a blog post on the MUX site about why we made the second night free, and pushing it out on all the interwubs, 300 people came to that night’s show. That’s great, but had I been able to understand how people percieved the ticket pricing ahead of time, the whole weekend could have been packed out, and I could have been selling tickets at greater than $0.

I’d crave your thoughts. How do you challenge your assumptions? Has hindsight enlightened your current planning process? What are some methods that you use to gain perspective when you are planning and executing your projects?

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