IT Strategist's Dilemma

By Sourabh Hajela

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Simply put, every strategist, including the CIO, is faced with the “stay-the-course” or “cut-and-run” choice at least once in their career. Usually, it is many more times than one!

The strategist’s, in this case, the IT Strategist’s dilemma is: "Should I do as planned or change the plan?"

In answering this question, there is the risk of prematurely and incorrectly changing a strategic plan that would have worked. There is also an acknowledgement that a carefully crafted strategic plan did not stand the test of time, i.e. somehow, somewhere the CIO failed.

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Is this the right conclusion to draw? I don’t agree.

No matter how hard you try, the unexpected will happen. In today’s dynamic business environment, the only constant is change. Economies and industries change. Disruptive technologies appear on the horizon. Competitors change or they change tactics. Internal capabilities change. The list is endless.

These unanticipated changes are not a sign of failure of your plan. But they do require a response. That is where the strength or weakness of a plan is tested.

So what do you do when faced with change? Do you continue with the playbook? Do you punt? Do you modify the playbook?

The simple answer is to be flexible. This agility often determines the success or failure of an IT strategy. But this is easier said than done. Agility depends on three key things. Let us look at each and see how.

Monitor your environment. Continuously and diligently, so you are not blindsided by change.

I would bet that most leaders know this. But I am equally confident that IT organizations (ITO) operating as cost centers do not monitor their environment. They do not have a well defined process or champion for business changes that affect IT.

Consequently, they are continuously reacting to these changes. Ironically, this focus on cost management has the exact opposite effect because reaction is often more expensive than a carefully planned response.

IT organizations task the CTO with monitoring and managing change. However, CTOs often focus on technology changes — new applications and hardware — not business changes. Often, their role is advisory, therefore lacking the authority to affect change in an ITO.

On the business side, there are usually teams monitoring changes in the business' environment. However, often, these teams do not have the skills to assess the impact of these business drivers on technology.

This situation is exacerbated by a lack of well defined processes for collaboration between business and IT. Hence, the proverbial dots are not connected until it is too late.

This was never a good situation. It is even worse now with the increase in pace of change and competition. Thanks to advances in IT, information is delivered in real time to its users — where they are and when they want it. Now, one must not only connect the dots but also connect them before their competitors do.

To succeed in this fast paced business climate, business and IT must collaborate on monitoring and responding to three key categories of changes:

  • Environment – Changes in the economy, regulation, industry, etc. that can have an impact on your organization.
  • Technology – Improvement in current technology or introduction of new technology that can alter the effectiveness or efficiency of your organization.
  • Internal competencies – Changes in skills, processes or intellectual capital that can give the organization competitive advantage or vice versa.
  • This is a process; i.e. it must be done continuously in conjunction with the development and implementation of an IT strategy.

    Plan for the changes. An ITO should have a well defined plan to deal with these changes. This plan should be thorough but recognize the fact that it is based on a prediction. The real thing might turn out to be very different. Hence, there is a need for flexibility in this plan.

    We can only hope to identify all the changes in time. Some will invariably slip through. Do not let this concern about an “incomplete picture” get in the way of action. Some of what we did not get will pass by without impact. The rest, one can deal with through improvisation.

    One should not (and, practically, cannot) act on every identified change on the horizon. Only a few will be relevant to us. We should also learn to differentiate between a temporary blip from a fundamental shift.

    To my knowledge, this is not an exact science but a matter of instinct and agility. Over time, we hone in our instincts. But agility must be built into the system.

    Build flexibility into the system. Agility is essential to the success of an ITO because even the most carefully crafted plan will face facts on the ground that will render some or all of it ineffective.

    So, how do you build agility into the system?

    First, through an IT strategy that adapts. This assumes an IT strategy is never completely “done” but is crafted over time through a process of multiple “learn and do” cycles. You create a “big picture” then take baby steps to implement it; refining it along the way as needed.

    This process includes periodic checkpoints much like the six sigma tollgates that evaluate the current position. Monitoring the environment tells us what the latest business drivers are. Then respond to these questions:

  • What has changed?
  • What should be our response?
  • This is analogous to driving in fog: You know where you want to go but at any given time your view is restricted to the immediate horizon. So, along the way, evaluate where you are and give yourself time to respond. Drive too fast or over commit in other ways and you land in a ditch!

    Second, we need an enterprise architecture that is flexible. Eliminating redundancy is job one. Then applying sound architecture principles such as “component based,” “plug and play,” etc. results in a flexible architecture.

    Most importantly, a CIO and their team need a flexible attitude. Nobody can predict the future. Stuff happens when you least expect it. The best of us make mistakes. Admit it when you are wrong.

    Bottom line? Be willing to change because, staying the course can be neither good for the shareholders nor your career.

    Sourabh Hajela is a management consultant and trainer with over 20 years of experience creating shareholder value for his Fortune 50 clients. His consulting practice is focused on IT strategy, alignment and ROI. For more information, please visit www.StartSmartS.com. Or feel free to contact Sourabh at Sourabh.Hajela@StartSmartS.com.