Just what do real CIOs think a real strategy looks like?

'I know it when I see it'

Reg Roundtable Strategy is supposed to be what a top tech exec is paid for, so it’s not surprising our recent roundtable on the subject was rather over-subscribed, giving us a mix of financial services, leisure, startups, national government and a couple of sizeable charities. What we explored was how to actually go about building a strategy rather than simply a plan.

What is Strategy?

Without answering that question, you aren’t going to get very far, but our IT Decision Makers had a range of very different ideas. At the happy end of the table, strategy is a forward-looking process, implementing the vision of the CEO, with timescales that fit the structure of the business. [Details of our next roundtables are here and here.]

Some are working on what they called “Japanese” time, where we’re working towards a big goal that won’t be realized until years are past. So their strategy is about expansionary change, new products and services with adoption of new platforms a component. They referred to this as building for the next generation, which is a rare ideal.

At the other end is a brutal reality is that some have inherited dysfunctional infrastructures and the “strategy” reflects restoration of stability and even reliable logins.

One of the better definitions of strategy was ‘how we win’ and was more detailed than the mission statement, coming from the happy end of the table. (Although we call them roundtables, they are square and by some mysterious process, the ITDMs seat themselves according to some unspoken pattern.)

Whose Strategy is it anyway?

Strategy is very much a function of the CEO’s vision, which makes life a bit tough when your firm goes through a series of CEOs in quick succession and personally quite tough when you are a “changer and grower” and the new strategy is “stability” or “cost reduction”. That’s a part of self-knowledge that our successful ITDMs have clear in their own minds. Very few people are excellent at both, the trick is to not con yourself into thinking you’re one of the few.

Being able to hear the mood music is critical to getting buy-in from the CEO and the rest of the leadership team. If they see your role as basically just keeping the lights on, then upgrading the customer experience, sophisticated analytics or upgrading to Windows 10 will just annoy them and diminish your credibility.

Part of the expectation setting is that - who-ever you are talking to about strategy - they are specifying what needs to be achieved, not how. It wastes times and sets false expectations if their ideas about databases, which tablet to buy (don’t buy iPads) and “that really cool Teradata analytics thing” aren’t even spoken about because they’ll be disappointed and because the ITDMs were clear that you shouldn’t start with what you think is possible, but from what you want and then make it possible.

The outline execution path is worth sharing, but the CEO doesn’t own it, nor indeed does the next tier down. That issue of governance was a bugbear from our IT execs, who almost all saw a governance gap in both big and small organizations where the existence of silos and the need to avoid being hit by other risks means there are few actual decision makers, rather than people who ‘liked to be in the loop’.

Keep your friends close, but…

We also discussed how it is not just the official management team that we need to deal with. Each business area has its own baron and we must decide whether to bring them into the tent so the urine trajectory is acceptable and to Teflon-coat the decisions by being seen to accept their input, since the ideal is to get them to commit in writing what it is they actually want.

What we’re doing here is removing excuses for failure before it starts to happen and minimizing the comeback and sniping because almost any worthwhile change strategy is going to have losers as well as winners.

Toxic Stakeholders

One thing you learn at Roundtables is how to disagree with each other like professionals and the happy end of the table saw any form of democracy as a waste of time. There was a remarkable correlation between the honest appraisals of how good the IT was at various firms and having fewer people involved in the decision making, with the unhappy end of the table citing hordes of people who “contributed” to strategy formation. We all knew of heads of business units who hated IT, hated changing the IT they hated and indeed any change at all. But dealing with them is the normal cruft of the job. The worst people to have in the process too early were private equity, who create artificially tight time boxes and over-specified deliverables that make little sense at the start, and are too inflexible to be delivered even if they were still a good idea. This was a specific case of the more common class of pokers, people who emit bits of strategy and for reasons of geography, time or simply their self importance are then impossible to get in touch with to refine their rigid demands to some form of rationality.

Then of course a strategy is a political manifesto - but not yours. So one piece of advice from our ITDMs is that you need to find out who the CEO doesn’t want in the strategy process, either because they are being shafted or because their views simply aren’t wanted.

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