- October 15, 2020
This blog post is a humorous recounting of how IT Strategy gets created in some traditional organisations around the world.
Recently, I read an article by a global strategy consultancy urging organisations to compress annual strategy cycles down to a quarterly cadence with real-time refinement to survive the pace of change. Momentarily I recalled my early days in the late 90s when organisations set strategy once every 5 to 10 years. In stark contrast, today organisations are being urged to set strategy and validate it every quarter as well as perform real-time interventions to correct course or risk going out of business.
As a Strategy Consultant, one of my first actions in any assignment is to seek history and context. No one knows this better than frustrated IT staff who point me to a folder aptly titled “Old IT Strategies”. What I discover in these documents is a topic for another article, but what fascinates me is how frequently organisations undertake this arduously manual and flawed process of creating an important artefact that should ideally not require creation from scratch, a relevant and timely copy of which must always exist in perpetuity. After all, a good and effective IT Strategy will add at least 5% if not more to an organisation’s bottomline(per Accenture Research).
Given how large, complex organisations create IT Strategy today, would it be remotely conceivable for them to heed this consultancy’s urging? Are organisations equipped with the processes and culture to set, review and course-correct strategy every quarter? To answer that question, we first need to look at the process followed today in some organisations to create IT Strategy.
Current State Analysis: The Deep, Dark Data Mines
The process of creating an IT Strategy often starts with a laborious, protracted and utterly joyless period of data gathering for the current state analysis which is useful to help reinforce investment requests. Legions of otherwise-busy employees are conscripted at gun-point, taken away from their day jobs and sent into IT mines to discover precious data, extract it and load into monstrous spreadsheets which are then fired at a hapless Project Manager to collate and bedeck for management approval. This data discovery, collation and enrichment maelstrom results in hundreds of Excel spreadsheets with delightful titles.
Once the purpose is served, the conscripts stampede back to their more rewarding day jobs and all the effort to discover, collate, cleanse and beautify data is wasted as it ages and loses relevance. No one left understands how the data was processed or those enchanting graphs were produced. Typically, 50 to 75p of every pound spent on IT Strategy is spent to produce a data repository that is relevant for a few days at best.
Departmental Strategies: Herding Cats
In the next stage of IT Strategy creation, the Project Manager hands the data and associated analytics to a host of experts – Business Partners, Enterprise Architects, Service Delivery Managers, IT Operations Managers, Portfolio Managers etc. Their collective task is to assess the current situation, read tea leaves and bird innards (a.k.a business intentions), predict the future and produce a cohesive and coherent functional strategy of intentions, plans, investments and timelines to get from the doldrums of today to Utopia of tomorrow. While the best organisations create an integrated business and IT strategy jointly, most traditional organisations still create strategy by marshalling the disparate intentions of multiple divisions toward common purposes and direction, which requires that:
- Each IT division individually articulates their intentions
- Each IT division concurrently stays in sync and aligned with other IT divisions with regards to outcomes, dependencies, timing, resources, investments etc.
Biggest challenge with this traditional approach? Point 1 above happens but Point 2 often doesn’t.
The single biggest operative word from the above paragraph is “cohesive”. Each divisional owner works in an “Ivory Tower” or “silo” and produces a great piece of art covering their departmental remit but very few people communicate and collaborate with others to understand and manage cause-and-effect. Great thinkers are not exactly renowned to consult and work closely with other people. Consequently, the Project Manager now has two dozen beautiful but individual pieces of strategic artwork that when put together do not form a whole picture.
The Masterpiece: Stitch & Shock
At this stage of the IT Strategy creation process, a conveyor belt of ragtag PowerPoint decks and Excel-spreadsheets make their way to the Project Manager. He/she now has the enviable task of manually stitching these “body parts” together into a whole strategy but will they fit seamlessly together? Nine out of ten times no, for the exact reasons described in previous section. Unfortunately, by this stage too much time has elapsed, the remaining few conscripts are itching to get back to their day jobs, contractors are screaming for extensions, the budget is spiralling out of control, the CIO is getting impatient and the Board is demanding to see the output. There is little appetite for significant group effort required to make the end-to-end IT Strategy cohesive and coherent, so those in power craft explainers for the anomalies, inconsistencies, and gaping holes. The conviction that the disjoint and ineffective IT Strategy is yet the right thing to approve and execute is something I have come to call “shocking into life”. Thus, is born the Frankenstrategy.
Show & Tell: The Contagion
The Frankenstrategy deck is now ready for publication so several dozen copies of it with varying content are produced for different audiences. Each version will undergo numerous revisions, going back and forth via email between dozens and dozens of stakeholders. Every change produces a new deck that needs proper saving, renaming, comparing, syncing across all other versions. Constant movement of underlying data needs to be updated in source Excel spreadsheets, graphs recut and re-inserted into all the affected decks. This process creates dozens of PowerPoint decks. To make matters worse, recipients also make changes to their locally saved copies without the PM’s knowledge which exerts further pressure in this dysfunctional process.
Over time there is no single version of the truth anymore, just “versions of partial-truth” lying in hundreds of inboxes. Almost everyone is asking each other “am I looking at the latest version of this?”, “why are the numbers in this version off by 52 compared to that version?”, “this diagram does not reflect the changes I asked for two months ago!” By now, the poor PM has had they sleep plagued by evil PowerPoint decks with toothy grins, they discover spiritual enlightenment and sails away into the sunset.
Requiem for a PowerPoint Deck: The Unfulfilled Promise
In contrast to the immense expense and time it took to create, the greatest tragedy of a Frankenstrategy is how quickly it loses integrity, confidence and relevance. Among the skeleton graveyards of “previous IT Strategies” I find in bottom cabinet drawers, I routinely discover some IT Strategies that have never even seen the light of day. They were DOA (dead on arrival). Of course, the circumstances are not always simplistic to explain away easily. Like these ancestors, our Frankenstrategy also heads to the bottom drawer of someone’s cabinet and gets forgotten over time, only to be discovered years later by another PM on a new quest.