Buffalo Jump


The American Buffalo would jump over a cliff rather than step out of alignment with the rest of the herd. Hunters steered the buffalo and drove them over a cliff, breaking their legs and rendering them immobile. Tribe members were waiting below to finish them off.  A growing body of project management professionals has been promoting the virtues of institutional alignment. The definition of Institutional alignment includes governance, partnership, value analytics, communicative/interpersonal, and HR.  A good example of institutional alignment is the US Federal Government or in fact most governmental organizations. Most dynamic organizations would not want governmental institutions as their role models.  

Not too long ago I would be in alignment camp with the other project management professionals.  Our research shows something more profound.  Several months ago I met with an IT executive of a major retail building supply company. He had just rolled a series of mobile applications for both retail and contractor customers. The projects were not aligned, but the apps were a great hit with their customers. John Scully fired Steve Jobs because he would not be aligned.  Later Jobs staged a palace revolt by dumping Amelio because he was trying to make him conform to the corporate strategy.  If Jobs and Apple practiced institutional alignment, Apple would not have invented the iPod and they would be out of business or a small division of Oracle.

Study after study shows it is in human nature to conform and many bright people do not speak up. When a person does speak-up they are often given the boot.  A few years ago I was doing a series of executive sponsor interviews.  I asked Richard Mark Soley, president of OMG, a standards organization, his thoughts on clear business objectives and this was his reply, “I think having a clear business objective is one of those phrases that is over used. The projects that are the most interesting are the innovative ones where the clear business results you may not be aware of until after the project is done.”

Soley continued to say, “Innovation does not mean doing the same thing over and over again. Innovation is doing something new. In my experience where a project has vague or lax in clear business objectives is where we have found break through value.”  After his comments we started looking at the relationship between clear business objectives and project value. Our newly designed CHAOS database with both a value scale and a strategic goal scale proves his comments were correct.  The majority of high value projects were furthest from the organization’s strategic goal. 

Inspiration is the fuel of progress, while institutional alignment is the restraint of progress. We live in a technology world and every day more and more technology affects the way we live, love, and think.  Great opportunity, danger and disruption are around every corner. Remember the road to oblivion is paved with projects that are strategically aligned with the current corporate strategy and vision.

Want a diversified project portfolio that maximizes value? Check out: Exceeding Value

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Subject Matter

Clear Business Objectives

About the Author:


Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson is chairman of The Standish Group. He has been professionally involved in the computer industry for over 40 years and has a long list of published books, papers, articles and speeches. He has a combination of technical, marketing, and research achievements focused on mission-critical applications and technology. He is best known for his research on project performance and early recognizing technology trends. Jim is a pioneer of modern research techniques and continues to advance in the research industry through case-based analytical technology.

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