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4 questions to keep your IT strategy on course

As leaders of IT organizations, we help shape what is to come.

Most leaders try to visualize the future by examining the present and asking, “What’s next?” That’s a tough proposition because these leaders are trying to extrapolate. Where you go next depends on your future challenges. It’s an iterative process where you build on each successive year.

This might seem like an effective planning approach, but it has its limitations. By extrapolating, you tend to react to what’s happening rather than planning for the future. After a few iterations, you can lose track of your goals, requiring a course correction to get back on track.

Imagine an end goal, and then fill in the gaps between your current location to your destination.

I find it’s much easier to interpolate instead: Imagine an end goal, and then fill in the gaps between your current location to your destination. In my experience, this approach helps me to generate better strategic plans.

IT strategy: A four-part exercise to try

With your next strategic plan, try this exercise:

1. Where are you now?

To plan a journey, you need to know your starting point. Start your planning exercise by describing your current status. What does your organization do? What work is getting done and what is getting left behind?

I often start this step with a “Plus/Delta” exercise to identify what’s currently going well for my organization and what should we change to improve our workflow or our service delivery. This honest evaluation is best done in a small group discussion, perhaps with your internal customers or with your management team.

2. What is the vision?

Once you’ve identified your starting point, the next step is to understand your destination. For this exercise, set the clock forward and imagine what that future state looks like. What is your IT organization doing five years from now? What are its priorities? What does that IT team look like? How is it shaped? What is it focused on?

This part of the planning exercise is a difficult balance. You need to rein in the vision so it’s realistic; establishing a Moon Base is probably not on the five- or ten-year horizon. At the same time, you should be visionary. One way to think outside your current limitations is to consider what technology will be like in five or ten years and follow up with how your organization will work with that technology.

[ Want more real-world advice? Read also: 4 ways CIOs can lead change management now. ] 

When I help others build their strategic plans, we spend a lot of time imagining the future shape of their organization. We need to fully understand what the future destination will look like before we can plan the next step in the process.

3. What are the milestones?

Once you’ve imagined that vision, take a step back. You know where you’re going to end up in five or ten years. What are the major milestones you will pass along the way as you progress towards your target? Avoid turning this into a punch list of to-do items, at least at this stage. Instead, try to keep the focus on what will things be like along the way.

For example, if you’ve imagined your organization ten years from now, consider what things will look like in five years as you move toward that future state. Maybe your future vision includes wearable technology – one milestone along the way to meeting that vision is technology companies like Apple or Google will produce wearable tech, such as a consumer-friendly, less geeky version of Google Glass.

It might help to follow the “open-focus-close” process in this step. During open, put everything on the whiteboard. Any suggestion gets added to the list, with very little filtering. As you focus, you can throw out items that seem less likely as milestones toward the future state. To close, you can organize the milestones into timeframes, such as “next 1-3 years,” “next 3-6 years,” and so on.

4. What is the first step?

Having identified the future state and the milestones that you’ll pass on the way towards that vision, you can now take one more step backward to identify the tasks and projects that you can undertake. What’s your next step? Where do you go from here? What projects will help your organization meet those upcoming milestones?

Don’t just identify projects and business activities that get you out of the starting gate, although that’s very helpful to build initial momentum. Also, consider what projects you might need to initiate between each of the milestones to get your organization moving forward.

When you’ve completed the four planning steps, congratulations! You’ve created the outline of your next strategic plan. Add any specifics for your organization, including budget estimates and staffing needs. You’ve successfully envisioned the future and generated an action plan to get there, including projects and activities that will keep you on the path.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

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