Gone are the days when information technology strategies could be rigid multi-year plans. A company’s goals remain reasonably steady over a two to four year period but the IT strategies employed to accomplish those goals need to be agile; they need to be continuously adjusted. Like setting a ship’s course to reach a distant port, strategy is a way of steering toward a goal; a way of getting from here to there. The real world unfolds in unexpected ways that push you off your expected course so you make mid-course corrections (strategy corrections) as needed. But you are not just flailing about because you are always steering toward a steady destination (the business goal).
Here’s an example from my own experience as a CIO for using the OODA Loop to continually adjust my IT strategy and achieve strategic agility. The process has a sequence of four steps (see diagram below).
Four Steps for Agile IT Strategy
Start by observing the present business and IT situation and collecting relevant information that allows you to evaluate opportunities and threats. Map out the big picture by literally drawing a map that shows the territory in which your company operates. Use the map to identify facility locations of your company at present and locations your company wants to open in the future. The maps you draw will be more than just geographical maps. You also need to draw maps of the markets your company serves, maps that compare your systems capabilities to your competitors’ capabilities, and maps that describe and compare the IT infrastructure of your company and its competitors.
These maps, charts, diagrams, and lists define and identify where your company is at present and where it wants to be in the future. This future destination is the destination that all your IT strategies aim to reach. Coherent strategy starts when people understand where they are at present and where they are trying to go.
Decide how to get from here to there means plotting a course to take you from where you are to where you want to go. The last several decades of experience in the IT profession teaches us not to attempt “big bang” strategies. These types of strategies try to move IT organizations directly from where they are to where they want to be in one mighty leap and they fail most of the time. Instead, define a sequence of interim destinations that create a path to follow to get you to the desired final destination. Then make your calculations for getting from where you are currently to the next interim destination on your path.
Act effectively to manage risk requires that you make sure the journey between each interim destination can be accomplished in three to nine month and that each interim destination produces value in its own right. The interim destination you reach in three to nine months cannot be just some midway point that still requires more work in order to be of any tangible value. In the context of IT this means that an interim destination must be a functioning system or business process, not just an analysis document or a set of specifications. The deliverable at the interim destination must be able to go into production and begin repaying the cost of the work to produce it.
Avoid Risky and Rigid Strategies
Design each interim destination so that changes in staffing, operations, and technology are affordable and manageable. Remember that systems are people, procedures, and technology combined in a coordinated way. Do not attempt changes in these three areas that are beyond the capability and capacity of your organization. Be honest about what is possible and what is probable.
After reaching each interim destination, you once again evaluate your situation and the trends that are happening. The interim destination you just reached provides a base from which to take your next step but does not lock you into any rigid, preset sequence of steps. The world will have changed in some way in the last three to nine months. Now is your opportunity to check out the lay of the land once again.
And reaching an interim destination gives you new capabilities you did not possess before. So think of how can you best use your new capabilities to capitalize on opportunities or counter threats that have come your way. Make your decisions in light of your need to continue steering your IT operation toward providing the capabilities needed by your company to reach its business goals.
I find this process creates strategies that are consistently competent and sometimes even brilliant. (more on this in my new book The Strategically Focused and Tactically Agile CIO