Why bad things happen to good IT Strategies?

You thought you have dotted all Is and crossed all Ts but still the IT Strategy failed. Why?

You did everything right. There was a steering committee, charter, process, framework, thorough analysis and an unbelievable deliverable. This was a perfect IT Strategy – even the consultant said so. Then why did it fail?
Before we answer this question, we need to rephrase it. Did the strategy fail or was it the team? Let me explain.
For argument’s sake, let us assume that this was indeed a very good IT Strategy – it got the key business imperatives and accurately identified the implications for IT. It also got the projects and priorities right and crafted a realistic plan of action. This team really hit the mark on all aspects of this issue.
Then how can we say that this IT Strategy failed?
The focus of this discussion is on other things so let us briefly answer this question. The signs of failure of an IT Strategy are everywhere. They cannot be missed. Lack of action is the most obvious one. Lack of funding for key initiatives is another one. There are many more but I hope you get the point - to be successful, an IT Strategy has to be implemented. And implemented successfully.
Sometimes the best IT Strategy fails because the team misses the critical factor to its success – stakeholder communications. To get stakeholder communications right, IT Organizations need to understand, acknowledge, accept and implement the following.
It is the business’ IT Strategy
IT Organizations have a hard time accepting this fact: IT Strategy is owned by the CEO not the CIO.
IT is an item on the CEO’s agenda. CIOs take their cue from that. At no point should there be confusion on who really owns this strategy – it is the business executive. The CIO is their trusted advisor and implementer. Nothing more, nothing less.
Engage the business
If it is the business’ IT Strategy then it is logical that they – key business executives or functional heads - be engaged not merely involved. Engagement turns “ownership on paper” into “ownership in practice”. It is the latter that makes the difference between success and failure of an IT Strategy.
How do we get the business engaged? How do we know if they are merely involved or really engaged? Here are a few examples:

  • Receiving status reports on the IT Strategy initiative is involvement. Writing and contributing to it is engagement
  • Attending IT Strategy meetings is involvement. Owning a deliverable is engagement
  • Listening to presentations is involvement. Presenting a section of the report is engagement

Who should you engage?
In a large organization, this is the million dollar question. The IT Strategy team has to wade through a list – sometimes as big as 100 names – of people to decide whom to engage.
Often, we get the initial list wrong. The usual suspects are all on it – those that are visible for one reason or another. Functions such as Marketing and Operations are well represented. Larger than life personalities make it no matter what their functional affiliations.
However, key stakeholders are missing on this list and that sets in motion the eventual demise of all the hard work that follows.
How many IT Strategy initiatives involve the Procurement Organization? How many actively engage the HR Organization? Getting organization charts is the beginning of such an engagement but it does not end there. IT Strategy has deep and lasting implications for the entire enterprise – HR is a key stakeholder and must be actively engaged throughout the process.
Stakeholder preferences also play a critical role. There are those stakeholders who want to be engaged – whether they have anything to do with it or not; whether they have anything to say or not. Then there are those who pretend to want to be engaged but really do not have the time or inclination.
So how does one get the “right” list? One needs to cast the net wide and then funnel to the correct list by asking the following questions.
Who should be engaged? Why? Carefully think through the list of stakeholders. Some need to be on this list because they have something to say. Others can clear hurdles. Others can be prevented from throwing stones.
How should they be engaged i.e what role will they play? Some will be on the core team. Some will be informed. Some will attend key presentations.
When should they be engaged? Some will be engaged throughout the process and some others will come in at key points. Understanding who comes into the picture when will help craft communications to them.
Often, the answer is not a whittled down list but a cube with three dimensions – stakeholder, medium and timing.

How should you engage them?
When it comes to communications, our focus is on emails, reports, presentations. Often, the same tools are applied for the entire audience without discretion.
Communications need to be personalized. Timing, medium and content must be tailored to the audience. For example,
CEOs must be interviewed to get their perspective. In fact, they should be one of the first, if not the first, people to be interviewed. They must be kept in the loop continuously throughout the process:

  • Be on the distribution list of key executive communication
  • Invited to key presentations
  • Regular, perhaps monthly, meetings to show deliverables and get their perspective on them

CFO must also be interviewed and get the same written communications as the CEO. However, do they need to be met with monthly to get their perspective on key deliverables? Perhaps.
Similarly, head of HR, needs to be interviewed and receive written communications. Do we meet with them monthly on IT Strategy?
Personalized communications are invaluable to the success of an IT Strategy initiative. But communications are not just written or spoken words as in emails and presentations. Communications is also about getting active participation of the key stakeholders:

  • Should a finance person be on the core IT Strategy team? Should they be involved in calculating the ROI of key initiatives? Absolutely.
  • Is there a spot for an HR person on the IT Strategy core team? Should this person own the organizational implication section of the deliverable? Absolutely.

An IT Strategy initiative that engages all key stakeholders is right from the start. Because there is no such thing as a perfect IT strategy. An IT strategy is created and continuously refined i.e. it is a work in progress. Engagement of key stakeholders ensures that we make progress!
About the Author:
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 http://www.startsmarts.com/. Or feel free to contact Sourabh at [email protected] .

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