What makes a great IT Strategy?
In order to be clear on how to create a great IT Strategy we need to first step back from the subset of IT and be clear on just what makes great strategy? There are plenty of articles and blogs already in existence that going into great exhaustive, existential arguments about this topic, i’m not going to add to them, so in this post we’ll set out a quick answer to that question and then focus on what that means for a great IT Strategy, before defining some essential attributes to a great IT strategy that we’ll then flesh out in future posts.
What is Strategy?
In ‘Playing to win: How strategy really works’ Lafley & Martin defined the Strategy Choice Cascade of 5 connected and reinforcing choices:
- What is our winning aspiration?
- Where will we play?
- How will we win?
- What capabilities will we have?
- What management systems do we need?
In ‘Good Strategy Bad Strategy’ Rumelt succinctly states that “doing strategy is figuring out how to advance the organisation’s interests” and identifies Two essential aspect of good strategy:
- A good strategy has coherence, coordinating actions, policies and resources to accomplish an important end
- A good strategy includes a reframing of the strategic situation to uncover new sources of strength, weakness, advantage and opportunity
Bound up in this whistle-stop tour of ‘what is strategy?’ are some key attributes that are essential for making a great IT strategy (several of them happen to begin with C, i wasn’t purposefully trying to create some sort of alliterative list)
A great IT strategy is informed by an understanding of the layers of strategic Context:
- The IT organisation’s role within the wider organisation
- The organisation’s place within its market
- The organisation’s place within its environment and ‘Zeitgeist’
This reminds me of the old marketing plan adage that the plan must be ‘internally consistent and mutually supportive’, a great IT strategy must be coherent both within itself and coherent within the IT organisation’s context.
Choice and Direction
Modern IT is awash with a vast richness of possibilities of technologies, suppliers, methodologies etc. A great IT strategy boils the multitude of possible choices down to a clear set of choices and therefore a clear direction for IT. A great IT strategy means saying no so much it hurts so you get down to the essential choices and direction or as Rumelt would term it the ‘kernel’.
The creation of a great IT strategy must be a challenging journey if you are to avoid just churning out a BAU plan that is called a strategy. The challenge has multiple facets; Challenging assumptions and prevailing viewpoints, challenging the organisation and senior IT stakeholders, challenging the IT leadership, challenging the accepted structures of IT process/organisation and technology.
At the end of the day a great IT strategy isn’t really about technology, it is about recognising the capabilities that the business needs to have in place to achieve its strategic objectives and understanding IT’s role in providing and/or enabling those capabilities. In the context of IT strategy thinking about capabilities helps us both look at things from a ‘Start where we are’ perspective, ‘what do we already have that we can build on?’ and from a ‘closing the gap’ perspective, ‘what could we achieve if we had this capability?’
A great IT strategy has to include a clear, realistic action plan. In my experience it is very easy to come up with a logical plan that looks achievable and very difficult to come up with a plan that is actually realised.
There are however two competing/contradicting human behaviours at play here:
- The human desire for certainty
- The human inability to accurately estimate complicated tasks occuring in a complex system
In a nutshell, when developing an IT strategy plan we should put the effort in to provide as realistic plan as possible, whilst also accepting that it will in no way reflect reality and doing as much as we can to a) prioritise the essentials within that plan and b) manage stakeholder expectations
Something that is often skipped in strategy books/articles beyond the somewhat lazy aphorism that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is People. When discussing Capabilities i flippantly stated that IT strategy isn’t really about technology and whilst, yeah i was being flippant, its also pretty true.
It is people that will implement your plans, it is people that will need to be coached, mentored, developed and recruited to deliver the strategy, it will be people that will get political and become potential blockers, it will be people that will be impacted positively or negatively by your strategy. An IT strategy that isn’t people centred at its core, is not an IT strategy that is likely to be valid, viable, feasible and most probably even desirable.
In this post i’ve set out some key elements that need to be present in a great IT strategy. In coming posts we’ll touch on all of these areas and i’ll be breaking down what specifically needs to be included in an IT strategy and how to approach putting one together.