Assumptions can make fools of us all

31 Oct 2012

I’m sure you’ve heard that old line, “Don’t assume. It makes an a** of ‘u’ and ‘me’.” It’s crude, but a surprisingly relevant lesson for those of us who work on strategy and big projects.

I was speaking with Walter McFarland about the role of strategy, organizational capacity, and projects creating business value during a visit to Washington D.C. Walter is chairman-elect of the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) and formerly a senior partner at Booz Allen Hamilton.

As Walter carefully drove us down Interstate 66, I made the same point – albeit in a more elegant manner. “Strategy and implementation seems to claim ceteris paribus… (This is economist speak for the assumption that a strategic choice is neutral in how hard it is to do in terms of things around it.) …This is inappropriate.”

As any golfer knows, the terrain that needs to be covered depends on the golf course. Each strategic choice is like a golf course – it has different terrain to another. This seems simple, but this point is often overlooked.

Turning to Walter, I said, “For example, one strategy might require greater technological and process change, another might require changes in business partners or corporate culture. Each of these has different patterns of success and failure – and requires different types of investments.”

Which strategic option do you choose? Clearly you go for results, but also for capacity to implement -- otherwise strategic project success can become project failure.

Here are some points to bear in mind when it comes to strategy:

  • Approach each situation as if you’re a golfer who’s trying out a new golf course. Even a novice golfer knows that some courses require more of the player than others.
  • Reject ceteris paribus. Not all things are equal when it comes to strategy. Be explicit about the assumptions made for the strategy or major project work
  • Evaluate the strategy for your organization. Larger changes are more difficult than small ones and will affect the implementation. Think of it as a golf game – a par-5 hole is much more difficult than a par-3.

In other words, when it comes to strategy, assuming that all things are equal will make fools of us all. It’ll also leave your golf score cards rife with double bogeys, and your game consistently over-par.

Joanne Flinn is the author of “The Success Healthcheck for IT Projects” (Wiley 2010) and can be reached personally at


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Joanne Flinn


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