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Prioritizing Time to Get Started on Strategic Planning

In my last blog 3 Steps an IT manager Should Take to Earn Their Seat on the Board, I talked about how to create a successful strategy for an IT organization.

 

Even if you understand what needs to be done to create your strategy, it can be very difficult to get started. One challenge you may face is that an IT service provider has to manage what it does over three very different timescales:

  • Operational – dealing with the incidents, problems and changes that are affecting the service right now. Operational timescales can range from a few minutes to a few days.
  • Tactical – planning and implementing the projects and changes that will satisfy current and expected business demand. Tactical timescales vary from a few days to a year or more.
  • Strategic – understanding trends in customers and markets, ensuring that you have the right services to satisfy long term needs, and optimizing your organization to deliver these in the best possible way. Strategy can take weeks or months to define – and years to implement.

Operational issues may be very urgent, and this can force strategic planning to be postponed. Similarly, issues relating to projects may prevent strategic work from making progress. The benefit that can be gained from investing time and effort in each of these areas is often the reverse of this urgency.

  • Strategic planning can help to transform the business, resulting in major improvements in business value, quality and cost of IT.
  • Tactical improvements can help to grow the business, by satisfying customer needs and reducing short term costs.
  • Operational activities, at best, result in maintaining the current situation by resolving an incident, for example.

An organization that spends all its time reacting to emergencies needs to find a way to pause, take a breath, and start strategizing. We use a three step approach to help our customers do this:

  1. The first step is to ensure that key stakeholders understand the potential benefits of taking a strategic approach. If all the stakeholders really understand the consequences of not having a strategy then this will help them to correctly prioritize their time.  This step should include formally identifying the stakeholders and making sure that you involve the correct stakeholders at the right time.
  2. The second key thing to do is to assign distinct responsibilities for operational, tactical and strategic activities. A manager who is accountable for any two of these will find it extremely difficult to carry out the longer term planning. This step should ensure that appropriate roles and metrics have been defined so that people are both empowered and measured to encourage the activities they need to perform. If a manager is measured on day-to-day service performance then it is unlikely that they will focus on strategic planning.
  3. The third step is to just start doing it. This will require a small team to plan and design the workshops and other activities you need to get started (see 3 Steps an IT manager Should Take to Earn Their Seat on the Board for descriptions of these activities). If the stakeholders really understand the benefits, and if the correct stakeholders have prioritized strategy ahead of operational and tactical responsibilities then it is surprisingly easy to make progress.

After you have made these starting steps, you will find it increasingly easy to focus on strategy and to start moving your whole IT organization from being a consumer of corporate finance to being a creator of corporate value.

 

Read some of my other blogs for more ideas and suggestions on how you can create your service strategy:

Learn more about HP IT Service Management (ITSM) Services and how we can help you improve the effectiveness and efficiency of your IT operations.

 

For more info about me and what I can do for your organization, see my profile at our Technology Services Experts page.

 

Follow me on Twitter @StuartRance

Comments
Leslee King(anon) | ‎02-15-2012 08:14 PM

I like your definitions of Operational, Tactical and Strategic.  Very straight forward and understandable.

Nadhan | ‎02-15-2012 11:45 PM

Stuart, Your article reinforces the reasons why the role of a Strategist is one of my potential Valentines @work.  http://bit.ly/wIcmow

JoshuaBrusse | ‎02-16-2012 04:12 AM

 

Hi Stuart, nice short article and indeed some good definitions. I have to say that you make it sound simple...maybe a bit too simple. Especially step 2 has proven to be interesting / challenging in my experience and alresdy a small transformation in culture and habits. Agree?

Thomasx Reiter(anon) | ‎02-16-2012 06:56 AM

I couldn't agree more. While I think that most CIO's will say, there is nothing revolutionary being said, my experience is that actually taking these steps in real life is often very hard to do.

 

Most companies fail when it comes down to strategic planning in the IT organisation.

 

 

Stuart_Rance | ‎02-16-2012 08:38 AM

Thanks to all for the feedback.

 

I do agree that it can be VERY hard to get started, and that step 2 could be particularly difficult. If the organizational culture makes senior management accountable for operational issues then there will be lots of effort required. In the worst case it  may need a complete overhaul of the governance of IT to enable people to focus on the strategic areas.

 

Nevertheless, the hardest bit is deciding to get started, and the approach I have described can really help senior management to get on the right track.

 

corine.doche | ‎02-21-2012 10:42 AM

Very good article, thank you Stuart, I like the structure you propose. These items always can look "simple" but often may be forgotten for the stake of moving fast into implementation/problem solving, i.e. starting by "doing". This is the law of time pressure and deadlines... So nice to keep in mind always and always !

Stuart_Rance ‎02-21-2012 10:49 AM - edited ‎02-21-2012 10:50 AM

Corrine,

 

Thank you. I do agree that the 'simple' things are often overlooked, because IT people like to get on with the interesting stuff.

 

My experience is that organizations that don't get the basics right are constantly having to deal with emergencies. time spent on strategy helps to prevent these emergencies from happening later.

 

Jill_Houlding | ‎02-21-2012 11:48 AM

To achieve anything to do with strategy, it is absolutely essential that there is no conflict with operational requirements. Operational demands will always be seen as more urgent and inevitably the strategic thinking will get put to the bottom of the pile.

Clear communication of strategic decisions is also important so that every member of the IT organisation understands the business service behind every IT task and the future direction of the business

Stuart_Rance | ‎02-21-2012 11:53 AM

Jill,

 

I agree with both of your points.

  1. Operational issues will always be seen as more urgent than strategic ones, but if this keeps happening then the strategic work will never get done, and nothing will improve. This is why I suggest separation of responsibilities, so that operational issues are properly managed by people who focus on operational issues at the same time as people with strategic responsibilities can focus on work that is needed to transform IT.
  2. Strategy absolutely must be communicated to be of any value. Starting with the mission and vision, which should be so well integrated into people's understanding that it influences everything they do.
Joe Albano(anon) | ‎02-21-2012 08:25 PM

You point out the importance of three distinctly different types of work that IT (or any organization) needs to be engaged in. Doing the work (operational), improving the work (tactical), and transforming the work (strategic). I think that it can become tempting to enter into a “forced choice” about which of these three activities is “most important”. A different approach to this challenge may be to help organizations understand how much of each activity and the importance of each activity to the overall business.

 

Perhaps a slightly hyperbolic example will help to make my point. Assume for a moment that you are the VP of operations for a fast food chain. One day you are visiting a retail store and see that the grill is getting backed up, so you decide to hop on the line and start frying burgers. Because of your years of experience, you fry burgers faster than anyone else, and the store does more business that day that it ever has. You notice these results and decide that the best thing you can do is roam from store to store, increasing sales by frying burgers.

 

This may be useful work, but it is not the work of the VP of operations. The work of frying burgers is clearly operational and should be performed by the individual contributors tasked with that job. Greater adherence to existing frying processes or improvement to the overall frying system are improvement projects that are the purview of tactical management. But there is an additional level of concern. Someone must be scanning the environment to determine that fried burgers are out and roast chicken is in. Without this perspective the organization will miss the critical need to create fundamentally new capabilities. These transformational projects are in the strategic domain of executives.

 

I have often observed IT executives “frying burgers” in emergency situations. The work provides a level of comfort and satisfaction because it is tangible and familiar. However it distracts these executives from the potentially more important (but often less immediate) work of finding better ways to support emerging business needs. Further, middle management often supports and encourages these executives to stay in the operational and tactical domains since strategic changes can mean changes to the system that made the middle managers successful in the past.

 

Others have commented on the difficulty of moving organizations to a strategic perspective. I suggest that perhaps it is a matter of approach as much as difficulty. The strategic perspective is a fundamental transformation to management thinking. It requires that executives conceive of their roles in completely new ways and then transform their organizations to support this new operational mode. This transformation frequently requires external support that is beyond the traditional MoC role of stakeholder analysis/alignment, communication, and training. These are necessary, but not sufficient to the task. Executive development and the development of strategic executive capabilities may be the “next frontier” for IT organizations and an important differentiator for both IT and the businesses that they support.  

Stuart_Rance | ‎02-21-2012 10:14 PM

Joe,

 

I enjoyed reading your comment, and I think your analogy is really helpful. I shall be using that story with my customers.

 

Thank you.

 

DavidWheable | ‎02-23-2012 03:21 PM

Nice analogy Joe and very useful!

 

A good article Stuart that addresses one of the key points that is often missed - the different time frames of the activities between strategic and operational points of view. From my experience the type of person who is good operational-style activities (quick to react, short-term focus, "fire-fighting", etc) isn't always so good at the strategy-style activities (careful analysis, long-term focus, etc.). So it isn't just separating the responsibilities it is also finding the right people.

Stuart_Rance | ‎02-23-2012 03:24 PM

You make a very good point about people with operational skills not necessarily having strategy skills. this may explain why so many IT execs spend their time on operational activities instead of concentrating on strategy!

 

Joe_Albano_PhD | ‎02-24-2012 03:48 AM

I completely agree with the comments about timeframes. A few additional points:

 

First, people often rise to management positions because of their effectiveness at dealing with immediate crises. This is not to say that these individuals are incapable of strategic thinking – simply that they may need to consciously switch the timeframe they devote their attention to – and actively delegate more tactical activities to less senior staff. This is one (of many) reason why a conscious governance plan can be a critical for successful IT transformation. It is important that the governance plan not be restricted, as it often is, to high-level decision making, but that it also defines decision making rights, responsibilities, and accountability systems for operational activities.

 

Second, as already mentioned strategic thinking capability is one very important success criteria, but it alone is not sufficient. No matter how good an individual is at long-term thinking, if they are constantly dealing with short-term issues, the strategy will nearly universally suffer. This is one more reason for a strong governance plan that assigns specific responsibilities for common tactical decisions (away from the strategic leaders) and uses accountability as a tool for improving the organizations decision making capabilities.

Stuart_Rance | ‎02-24-2012 08:31 AM

Joe,

 

Thank you for another insightful comment. It's funny how many of the difficult issues in IT come down to governance in the end.

 

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