It sounds easy, doesn't it. Of course, it isn't. Many companies (dare I say the majority) create a strategy, but do not receive the benefits. And, in my experience, the benefits on offer are massive. I truly believe that a company that creates and communicates a quality strategy can improve its performance by more than 20%. In many cases, it is higher, and in some cases, of course, it is the difference between success and failure. So before we go further, here is a short list of some of the things that can go wrong, as witnessed by other IT managers.
Not enough time is allowed or it takes too long.
All too often people are too busy with day to day operations to stop and think, let alone plan the future. As individuals we may be too reactive - responding to one crisis or another. At the other extreme, strategy can be made too difficult, requiring senior management to be tied up full time for days. This damages the day to day operation and often the outputs from such assessments are too detailed to withstand the test of time. The right balance needs to be struck. Strategic planning needs to be kept apart from operational issues and carefully planned so it does not overly disrupt day to day activities.
Strategy tries to do everything.
Some companies treat strategy like they would New Year's resolutions, promising to be successful in areas that they had not been in the past. It becomes an additional list of things to do. An important aspect of strategy is not just what you do, but what you don't do. Organizations talk about focusing on many different things. By definition, focus can only be applied to a small number of priorities. One of the most valuable approaches an IT manager can take is to give their business stakeholders a choice of what could be done and ask for those options to be listed in order of value or priority. It then becomes possible to suggest either that a particular activity could be postponed (the alternative most likely to be chosen) or cancelled (less likely, but different to the first, only in that it seems so permanent!).
The strategy is not joined-up.
One of the most common problems is where the strategy 'does not add up.' If you look at our process in section 2.3, you will see that there are three key alignment points. First of all the IT objectives need to align to the high level business objectives. Secondly, the strategic projects need to be carefully chosen to align to the IT objectives, and finally the project resources required need to be aligned to the resources available.
For a strategy to be successful it needs to be integrated. Business sponsors need to know how many of their resources are required for each initiative, so that it is evident what can be done with existing resources and which need additional ones. All too often business stakeholders assume that the resource limitations only exist in IT. It is the role of the IT manager to explain the whole picture. By way of example, imagine a fictitious CRM system. In theory, with modern software development tools, the software screens and workflow could be substantially changed in an afternoon. If you have a large customer care department, though, it may take months to training the users. In this case, the balance of work is clearly with the business. This needs to be fully considered when IT strategies are developed.
Strategy is high level with no clear plan of activities.
Strategy has to paint a high level picture, but if it is not grounded in practice, it risks being unachievable or inappropriate. It also needs to create a sense of urgency and act as the catalyst to kick off the key projects. Practical considerations mean that these initiatives should be done in order of priority. A clear plan will also tell the organisation what is expected of individuals so that they can support it. This is an important step because it demonstrates that strategy is not a paper exercise, which in turn helps to gain commitment.
Strategy is not communicated.
The best strategy in world will count for nothing if it is not well communicated. Different types of communication are required for different audiences. Board presentations might require a detailed presentation of financial growth and investment. Presentations to a wider audience might focus more on telling stories that illustrate what success looks like in terms that people can relate to in their day to day work. I came across an example in one of our clients recently. A very strong strategy had been developed, with a list of high level objectives, corporate programs, priorities and values. However, when I polled some of the managers I happened to be working with, only half had actually realised that it existed. It is a bit like building a racing bike, and forgetting to put on the saddle.
Strategy is not flexible
Strategy needs to be flexible and agile to quickly take advantage of new opportunities and threats. Reviewing strategy just once a year can often be insufficient as market forces change quickly. Regular reviews of strategy are more effective than a large planning exercise once a year. One of the characteristics of successful IT managers is identifying and stopping activities that are either no longer relevant, or not of a high priority.
No-one knows when it has been successful
Measuring the success of strategy is very important. Metrics should mean something to those who are responsible for delivering results. So for example, many help desks have call answer time as one of the key metrics. If this is not combined with other quality metrics of first time fix rates for example, it can be counterproductive - answering calls quickly without solving user problems rather misses the point.