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BLOG: The danger of false assumptions

Joanne Flinn | May 4, 2012
Remember, things are not always equal.

It was surreal. I was watching the snow fall as Walter McFarland, chairman-elect of the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) and former senior partner at Booz Allen Hamilton, carefully drove us down the Interstate 66. Walter and I were discussing the role of strategy, organisational capacity, and business value.

"A key assumption with strategy seems to claim ceteris paribus." The Latin phrase was appropriate - even if it revealed a background finance and economics. I continued: "The assumption that a strategic choice is neutral is inappropriate. The terrain to be covered by one strategic choice is different from another."

When it comes to strategy, things are not always equal.

One strategy might require greater technological and process change, another might require changes in business partners or corporate culture. Each strategy has different patterns of success and failure - and requires different types of investments. Each organisation is unique in its leadership and history.

A particular strategy may be easy to implement in one organisation, but incredibly difficult to execute in another. Differences in the implementation risk profile are unacknowledged gaps in evaluating strategies.

If you've had the pleasure of riding the London Underground, you'll have heard the warnings to "Mind the Gap". You may have also experienced the re-routings and stoppages of repairs to the Underground.

Successful strategy implementation is like the 'Gap' on the Tube. In some stations, the gap between where you are and where you need to step are small while stepping from the same train might be more risky elsewhere.

Bear these points in mind when considering strategy and the gap:

-          Approach the gap as you would approach a new station. Compare your situation to that of the other company when it used a strategy you are considering. Is the gap comparable?

-          Reject ceteris paribus. Not all things are equal when it comes to strategy. Each option has its own risk profile for success. Make conscious informed decisions based on the risk profile.

-          Evaluate the strategy for your organisation. Larger changes are more difficult than small ones, and this difficulty will affect the implementation.

It's dangerous to make false assumptions when it comes to strategy. Enjoying the Tube analogy a little, the width of the gap varies from station to station. Assuming that they're the same could get you more than a broken ankle.

Based on Insights for Success 2012: Projects, Programs and Portfolios. Joanne Flinn is the author of "The Success Healthcheck for IT Projects" (Wiley 2010) and can be reached personally at


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