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I'll take door No. 2

Joe Benesh is a senior architect with Shive-Hattery and President + CEO of the Ingenuity Company, a strategic planning, diagramming, framework development, and design thinking consulting firm.

The “Monty Hall” problem has always fascinated me. It’s a probability puzzle based on "Let’s Make a Deal", a game show from the golden age of game shows. Basically it involves the following:

Suppose you're on a game show, and you're given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what's behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, "Do you want to pick door No. 2?" Is it to your advantage to switch your choice? (Parade Magazine, vos Savant, 1990)

The answer is yes. I’ll leave it to you to research why this is the case, but for the purposes of talking about strategy, I want to focus on one aspect of the solution to this problem – the assumption that most people make seems reasonable (not to switch), but it proves out as incorrect. The expectation of a certain result generated by the assumption you have made (not to switch) is flawed, therefore you arrive at the wrong answer.

When working within strategy frameworks, this is a common problem. Assumptions are always made, leading to expectations based on those assumptions. What “feels right”. The flaw in this is that these assumptions are often not based on preset user group expectations, namely, alignment with mission or set strategic objectives in a leveraged way. Assumptions in this setting also tend not to rely on substantiating data. That leads to additional problems – assumptions always need to be tested.

The expectation of getting a car in the example above is rooted in the assumption that staying with the same door is the success tactic. In this case the expectation is correct, but the lack of data or rigor in analyzing the assumption leads to failure.

Clearly define your expectations. Then work with the stakeholders to develop the assumptions based on a set rigor and minimum defined definition of what a legitimate contributing presumption would be to lead to overall success. Again, it is never wise to “go with your gut” unless there is data that can be used to substantiate that feeling.

John Henry is the legend of a steel driver who challenged a mechanical steel drill to a race to the finish. It’s generally accepted as the origin of the modern "man vs. machine" debate. The expectation in this case was that the machine would readily beat John in the race. This was based on the assumption that the drill was clearly superior; there was no way a man could beat a machine in this contest. But, again, this did not prove out. That John Henry had some quality that the machine did not was not taken into consideration when the expectation was set. The expectation was set incorrectly, because the assumptions leading up to the expected outcome proved to be incorrect.

In defining the expectations or intended outcomes for your organization, work with the key stakeholders in advance to filter and refine assumptions before you start the planning process. It helps to eliminate biases and creates an ecosystem conducive to the production of successful structural assumptions as a baseline to build a framework from. This is another pillar of defining strategy, goals, and engagement around meaningful tactical steps to fulfill the mission and vision of your organization.

It is important to bear in mind and to take into consideration – sometimes there are internal factors, like in the case of John Henry, that will overcome seemingly overwhelming opposition – and – sometimes something as simple as switching the choice of a door can increase your chances of success significantly.

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