Minding the gap between Strategy and Tactics – The New CIO Series

The New CIO is a weekly article about the challenges facing today’s CIO as well as what can be done to prepare for future challenges.

I’ve seen many strategic plans for organizations. A few of these plans have sections for Technology Strategy while some don’t mention technology at all.   While these strategic plans are nice and thick, have lots of words and graphs and are usually well designed, they are missing something very important: a discussion of, and a plan for, implementation of the strategy.

This may not be anything new to you but its appalling to me.  Why take the time to create a strategy if you don’t know how you’ll implement it?

If you’ve read any of the leading books on being IT Strategy, IT leadership and other topics, you’ll most likely find chapters like “Weave Business and IT Strategies Together” (found in The New CIO Leader: Setting the Agenda and Delivering Results) or something similar. BTW – The New CIO Leader is a great book…go read it.

These types of books and articles go into great detail about tying business and IT strategies together using things like portfolio management, financial returns, and other really important things, but very few talk about one of the most important topics: the people who will be asked to implement the strategies.

Not only does The New CIO have to consider the financial investment required of a new strategy, you’ve got to consider the human investment as well. The financial side of IT strategy and projects is important, but the human capital piece of the equation is just as important.

Where did the Gap come from?

The gap has always been there in the organizations that I’ve observed.  My personal opinion of why the gap exists differ depending on what day it is…and whether I’m drinking at the time you ask. :)

Today (and most days actually), I’m going to argue that in many cases, the top level leaders who are building these strategic plans are so far removed from the day to day operations that they’ve lost track of the real capabilities of the organization.

This lack of understanding of what can be done and who can do it leads the organization down the path of building a strategy inconsistent with the capabilities of the organization.

The gap is created when the human capital of an organization isn’t factored into the strategic equation.

Minding the Gap

What can The New CIO do to bridge the gap between the strategic plan and the implementation of that plan?

First: understand your business, the market and your people.  Without this understanding, you’ve got no chance.

Second: In addition to asking the normal questions about investment, ROI, governance, IT infrastructure, IT architecture, risk analysis and all the other major questions,  ask yourself a few additional questions to help you (and other senior leaders) understand the human capital affect:

  1. Will the team understand this strategy?
  2. Can the team implement this strategy?
  3. Will the politics of the organization allow this strategy to work?

Don’t just answer these as yes/no…really think about them.  If you get a negative on any of these items, your strategy will most likely fail.  You can spend millions of dollars for McKinsey to build your strategic plan, but it will fail if you don’t have a true sense of how it will be implemented as well as buy-in and understanding from your team.

Let’s look at Social Media as an example.

Yeah…I know…i’m talking about Social Media in the Enterprise…again! :)

Many of you are probably discussing Social Media and how you can dive in to use this great ‘new’ tool to help drive your business.   You’re probably trying to determine a strategy for how you can use Social Media in the Enterprise or perhaps you’ve already built your strategic plan.

But have you thought about the people involved?  Who will implement your strategy?  Will it be your PR team?  Your marketing team?  IT staff? Will you bring in an external team to implement it?

I would argue (and I’m sure many will agree) that these things should be considered and included in the strategic plan. Perhaps the human capital equation is considered in your strategic plans, but from experience, I’ve not seen it happen much.

Let’s look at the three questions as they relate to this example:

Question #1: Will the team understand this strategy?

Does your organization understand social media? At a more granular level, does your marketing and IT teams? How many people within your organization are active in the social media space?  If the answer is very few, you are in trouble. You can’t possibly hope to implement a social media strategy without at least a few people around the organization that ‘get’ Social Media.

Question #2: Can the team implement this strategy?

So you think your team understands the strategy…but can they implement it?

More importantly, does your team have the capabilities to implement Social Media tools into the enterprise? Do you have cobol developers or do you have .NET, PHP or Ruby on Rails developers? Does your IT staff have the bandwidth to take on another ‘big’ project?  Are you already ‘doing more with less’ to the point where taking on a project like this will overload the team?

Answering this question (can they implement it) has as much to do with your team’s bandwidth as it does with their capabilities.

Question #3: Will the politics of the organization allow this strategy to work?

In my experiences, this is one question that is often overlooked.  Will the many levels of bureaucracy and the different silos within the organization allow your new strategy to work?  If not, what are you going to do about it?  Will your PR team see Social Media as an encroachment to their ‘turf’?  Will portions of the IT team undermine your social media efforts because they feel it opens you up to new security vulnerabilities?

You’ve got to figure these things out before finalizing your strategy so you know how you’ll address the political issues that will arise.

Start Minding the Gap

By answering these questions, The New CIO can better mind the gap between strategy and tactics by considering the human capital within the organization. Thinking about the human side of strategy & tactics will also help with the communication of these new strategies because the people will have been considered while the strategy has been created.

In addition, if you’re doing your job right, a good portion of your team should have been involved in creating your strategies anyway…so you’ll have their buy-in.  Once they see that the organizational capabilities are considered when creating an IT Strategic plan, they’ll get excited because their situation, bandwidth and capabilities have been considered.

In a previous post titled ‘Strategy, Tactics and Hope‘, I argue that its not enough to just have a great strategy nor a great plan for implementation…you’ve got to have both. In addition to strategy and tactics, you’ve got to throw in a sprinkle of hope to help bridge the gap.

Thinking about the human equation while developing strategy will help bring out that hope.  You’ll start seeing an optimistic team rather than one that feels overworked and under appreciated. Not only will you get buy-in to the strategic plan, you’ll also have an implementation plan that considers the human and financial capital required to make the strategy a success.

Next time you start thinking about strategic plans, mind the gap…think about your team and your capabilities before committing to that strategy.

Join me next Thursday for the next article in The New CIO series.

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Comments

  1. joannewortman says:

    I run into this often, and I agree.

    On the human capital side, another failure point is the lack of a tactical plan for communicating the strategy effectively to each department, business unit and stakeholder group, and for fostering adoption of the strategy.

  2. Interresting article on the topic, Eric. It is true that understanding the strategic resources of a company is critical, and determine the sucess or failure of a strategy. To paraphrase J. Collins, the first of the question any leader should ask is : Who is on the Bus?
    Fibol

  3. Thanks Fibol. Who is on the bus is a great question to ask…perfect (and fast) way to think about minding the gap.

  4. Hi Joanne – Great point on the communication of the plan. Even if you consider your strategy and tactical plans perfectly, if you don't communicate those plans well in advance of their implementation, you'll have significant troubles.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Hi Joanne – Great point on the communication of the plan. Even if you consider your strategy and tactical plans perfectly, if you don't communicate those plans well in advance of their implementation, you'll have significant troubles.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  6. An very intersting article. Thanks a lot. Your thoughts regarding how to mind the gap are really fascinating. I never thought about it in detail, but your article makes me to do.

  7. Scot_Herrick says:

    This is why my tag line for my work is “Where rubber meets cloud.”

    Strategy, outside of deciding on one, needs both commitment and implementation. Without both, the strategy will fail. A good move for the people deciding the strategy is to have people who know how to implement work so that the implementation is built into the plan.

    Good article, Eric!

  8. Hey Scot – thanks for stopping by.

    I'm always amazed at the misunderstanding that occurs in organizations..they forget that their strategy needs to be implemented by people…and they forget to ask those people whether it would actually work :)

    Thanks for compliment on the article too!

  9. Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

    http://blog.threestarleadership.com/2009/07/22/

    Wally Bock

  10. Hi Wally – thanks for including a link to my article. Also, thanks for stopping by!

  11. By grounding your efforts to build a strategy with real world availability of people it helps you develop proposals that are less blue sky and more actionable. Good thoughts.

  12. Great thoughts Fred. Grounding your strategies definitely help keep them actionable. Thanks for stopping by!

  13. I agree with your article. There is more to do to get the stakeholders on board with your strategy and also to make the strategy more realistic.

    Developing an IT strategy that is understood and accepted by the business and IT practitioners is a major challenge for many businesses. A lot of effort is invested in developing an elegant strategy, the future state architecture is sound and the board is pleased. Still, beyond one or two new projects, the strategy fails to get traction and there is large gap between the strategy and quality of the results. Read more at http://tinyurl.com/ttstrat

  14. “This may not be anything new to you but its appalling to me. Why take the time to create a strategy if you don’t know how you’ll implement it?”

    Dont worry Eric, you’re not alone in finding this type of mentality utterly bemusing but I see it happen all the time in finance companies here in the City of London. I recently wrote an IT strategy document for the organisation I currently work for and I deliberately worded it with garbage and gibberish as a test to see what kind of reaction I got back from the board of directors. It was approved as an official company policy document! There’s much more to this particular story but the bottom line is that that the IT strategy for any organisation should be aligned to the businesses needs. I’m yet to find one executive in this market who understands this fundamental principle.

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  13. JoelWarady says:

    A great article re: a proper Strategic Plans. You need to know what you will do, & how you will do it. http://tinyurl.com/l6e7a3

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