Having shared passengership on an ill-fated cruise, three professionals (a mechanical engineer, a chemist and an economist) find themselves marooned on a desert island with no source of nourishment but cans of tuna. Together, using emergency equipment from a life-raft, they have fashioned a means to capture fresh water from rain and condensation. Having mitigated the risk of dying of thirst, the three now turn their problem-solving skills to avoiding starvation:
Mechanical Engineer: I am going to walk up the beach to see if there are rocks and vines we can use. We may be able to generate enough force to break into those cans.
Chemist: If we can get enough super-salinized water in a receptacle, we may be able to soak the cans and speed up the corrosion that will weaken the cans. I am going to start by digging a hole in the sand.
Economist: I’ll set the table.
Both non-economists in unison: Hey! We can’t eat until we get these cans open!
Economist: Oh, sorry. I should have told you. I am assuming that we have a can opener.
The metaphor here is for the problem: “how do we open these cans of tuna?” and the point of the joke is that we all bring our own tools and orientations to any problem. “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” is yet another humourous illustrating of the weight of our own expertise in driving the action we think is best.
Rather than mocking economists for making assumptions, this joke illustrates that we all make assumptions all the time. In dealing with areas that are complex and have a degree of ambiguity (like managing performance in any business), we have to make some assumptions and make some decisions based on less-than-certain data and evidence.
Perhaps, once our two non-economists gently raise awareness to the fact that the stated assumption does not hold, our economist can engage in a more impactful supportive role. Such moments of redirection require a fairly specific context that includes shared focus, mutual trust and assertive communications.