- Initiation is all about preparing the ground; covering activities such as identifying the scope, priorities and timescale for the work and establishing the key stakeholders and sources of information.
- Formulation is the work on actually collecting the various inputs, carrying out the appropriate analysis to come up with a strategy and then obtaining the buy in for it from the sponsors of the work.
- Implementation comes after the strategy has been agreed and involves activities such as communicating the strategy to all relevant stakeholders and putting necessary frameworks in place to monitor its implementation.
What I’ve often found is that IT people frequently carry out steps 1 and 2 pretty well but tend to struggle with step 3. All too often, beautifully crafted strategies are created but because they are never properly rolled out they end up as shelf-ware.
Why should this be? Well, I think that there are a number of reasons. Part of it is simply the nature of projects: a lot of energy tends to go into the early stages of the work so that by the time implementation is reached there is less energy around and increasing pressure to wrap things up as quickly as possible. There is, I think, however, more to the issue than that.
The fact that the earlier part of the strategy work, in particular strategy formulation, is essentially an intellectual exercise which people from an IT background tend to enjoy, is an important point. Implementation, on the other hand, is much more reliant on people focussed skills involving engaging with and winning over stakeholders at an emotional level; something many IT specialists (let’s be honest here!) struggle with. Strategy implementation involves selling; identifying what are the key messages coming out of the strategy for each constituent stakeholder group and then working with them to ensure that they understand what this means for them and what they will need to do in response (and note, this is not the same as telling them that “the strategy says this therefore go and do it” which seldom results in real engagement).
Implementation also involves getting people to make commitments, ideally backed up by organisational, or even better, personal objectives as well as exposing the product of your intellectual analysis to a group of people who may not see things the same way. Of course, in an ideal world one would involve all such individuals in the work to create the strategy and enjoy strong and active top-down support to help win over waverers but of course the world is rarely ideal in this way.
So, what to do to address this issue? Well, every case is different but I would suggest that the following will at least help ensuring a successful implementation for a strategy:
- Ensure that the sponsor(s) understand the importance of implementation and the fact that it will need their direct support right from the start of the work
- Involve as many key stakeholders as possible as early as possible - especially the potentially awkward ones
- When communicating:
- Recognise that communications is a particular specialisation and therefore involve a specialist it at all possible
- Keep all communications short and focussed - don’t risk “death by Powerpoint” or expect busy people to read long, detailed Word documents.
- Don’t assume one size fits all; create specific communications packs for specific groups
- Have back up material available for those who want to go into more depth or even better encourage people who are interested, to engage with you to create this material.
- Allow groups and individuals room to engage, for example by presenting the key messages to them but then getting them to work with you on the detail of what it means for them
- Always remember that communication is a two way process and make a point of listening to what people are telling you, even where you don’t agree with what you are hearing.
- Make sure the strategy and the reality are aligned (it sounds obvious but it often doesn’t happen):
- Review project portfolios and challenge any projects that don’t align to the strategy.
- Put something like a balanced scorecard in place to monitor progress in achieving the major objectives of the strategy, and ensure it is reviewed regularly.
- Wherever possible, pin individuals down to specific, personal, objectives aligned to the strategy. This can be difficult, but without it, it will always be hard to maintain focus.
- Make sure that there is a clear plan for reviewing and updating the strategy - after all things change and the strategy will need to evolve to reflect this.
In summary therefore, for a strategy to have value it must be properly implemented and it is therefore essential that this step is properly carried out. This is frequently a major challenge for IT organisations but if the right resources are put in to this and the right actions taken there is no reason why this important activity cannot be successfully completed.
What do you think? Does this reflect your experience of IT Strategy work? Do you have any great tips for ensuring a successful implementation?
About the author
Adam Davison MBCS CITP has an MSc in IT from the University of Aston and has filled a variety of senior IT strategy roles for organisations such as E.ON and Esso.