IT Strategy development is not an easy process. It takes a lot of effort from IT Leaders, architects and business stakeholders. Even after a huge amount of effort, we often hear that within a short time the strategy is forgotten. In some organisations, one or two new initiatives can be triggered as a result of the strategy. But soon the rest of the strategy is put on the back burner.
If one was to analyse why is this? We find that the key reason is that the strategy was not developed with implementation or execution in mind. There may be mission /vision statements and roadmaps. These sound good at the board or C-levels. But they give limited guidance to the managers and the practitioners who have to carry out the strategy.
IT strategies often talk about innovation or new ways of doing work. These desires for change are clear. But people at the frontline need guidance about how to balance the day-to-day demands and still move to the new way. The managers are in the dark about how this change or their role in the change execution. Again the result is the same; strategy execution suffers.
Collaboration Enables Better Execution
Strategies that are conceived in the ivory towers of senior executives and the board room often fail. Innovation guru, Nilofer Merchant in her book ‘The New How’ says: a big obstacle for execution of the strategy is:
“the empty void in an organisation between the high-level strategy conjured up in the stratosphere and the realisation of that vision down on the ground.”
Merchant’s argument is that the best way to avoid this obstacle is to develop systems that allow strategy to be created collaboratively. She writes:
“We limit participation in strategy creation based on title and rank than relevant insight. We insist on lobbing strategy over the wall to the execution team without creating a shared understanding of what matters and why.”
Strategy execution requires going down from a 50,000 feet to 50 feet level. Execution needs detailed action plans that have clear priorities and milestones. Many organisations underestimate the contribution business and IT practitioners can make to a realistic execution planning.
Strategy planning can be great opportunity for engaging stakeholders at all levels. There is an opportunity to understand how well IT is supporting the business. Where the business is headed? How is the business and technology landscape changing? Therefore, what must IT do to improve own effectiveness? It is also an opportunity to communicate, “What IT will do differently” because if nothing changes, the new strategy will merely be a showpiece.
IT Strategy Development Process
Strategy development process needs to answer four key questions.
- Where are we now? This is about understanding the current state of play. Views from a range of internal and business stakeholders are used to gain detailed understanding of the current state of technology and applications, current service delivery, people, process and governance.
- How is the landscape changing? – This step is to understand of the changes in business (e.g. competition, regulation, new business models etc.) as well as the change in technology landscape (e.g. new technologies, new service providers etc.).
- Where do we want to be? –The next step is making choices about the future IT desires. Based on the stakeholder expectations and current capabilities, IT needs to define how best to support the business in the future. What capabilities are needed? How the future organisation may look like? Where should the next investments be focussed on?
- How do we get there? – This step covers the detailed plans, priorities, roadmaps and progress markers for the journey ahead.
Strong stakeholder participation and communication is a key in each of these stages. Stakeholders need to be brought along on this journey, so that they also understand current realities and opportunities. They will then understand what choices are being made and why.
Ten Tips for an Effective IT Strategy
- Get Executive Sponsorship – The strategic plan is an aid to guide future IT and investment decisions. Strategy development must have executive sponsorship for it to be adopted. The CEO or the IT steering committee needs to be fully across in the strategy development.
- Seek a range of inputs – A range of stakeholders including staff from operating units, vendors, partners should be involved in data collection and identification of opportunities and ideas. Business executives can give perspective on how the business is changing and where IT needs to improve. Understanding what is happening in the industry and what competitors are doing is valuable information.
- Identify measures early – If the strategy is to be implemented, there need to be clear measures of current and future performance. Good strategic plans include goals and measures for progress. How much IT can help reduce the ‘product to market’ time. How much would customer self-service increase? What cost savings would result from automation? If there is a baseline for the current performance measures and future goals, there is a greater chance for the action plans to be more realistic and tangible.
- Maintain flexibility during planning – As understanding develops, perspectives evolve during the strategic planning process. This is how breakthroughs and “out-of-the-box” thinking can take place. But flexibility in needed for these to evolve. Keeping an open mind and by not making too many decisions early will result in better strategy.
- Reality-check the plans – When the strategy is nearly ready, it is important to make sure that the strategy is actually achievable. Asking key IT staff and managers to give comments on implementation timeframes and challenges provides a reality check. When the real size of the tasks and timeframes becomes clear, steps can be taken to adjust the goals to make sure they stay challenging but achievable.
- Include capability uplift– Many strategies focus on projects and portfolio of initiatives but not on the capabilities needed. Capabilities include technical skills, project management skills, process maturity as well as governance (e.g. PMO, risk management) methods. Capability uplift is needed to create successful outcomes. Discussion on capabilities ought to consider vendor partnerships and outsourcing options.
- Measure actions then outcomes – Outcomes often take a long time to become visible. In the early stages, measuring actions on the initiatives is easier. Maintaining disciplined executive attention on completion of initiatives and targets is critical to achieving a successful implementation.
- Communication is the key – Developing the plan is only the first step. Communication is the key to engaging the organisation and generating the understanding and commitment for the strategy. Communication is not a one-time action. Regular updates on how strategy is being implemented and results achieved, reinforces the message and keeps focus.
- Take stock and revise – Strategy is the statement of direction, a path to future state. It is not like a rigid project plan. Businesses change and so do priorities. There is a need to check progress regularly and take corrective actions. Making the adjustments, when necessary, would keep the plan relevant.
- Treat as a Change Program – If strategy implementation is treated as a change program, with right sponsorship and change management disciplines, there is likely to be greater success in the implementation.
Making strategy effective means increasing its chances for adoption. Strong sponsorship from the top, engagement across the organisation by getting ideas use of reality checks and measurable action plans, make the strategy ‘real’.