blue-ocean-strategy-640x416In our upcoming BRMI Webinar Strategic Planning Tools for the BRM (January 31, 11a-12p EST) we will be mainly focused on Strategic Planning Tools and Techniques, so I wanted to lead into that webinar with a few “tips and traps from the field.” These are drawn from some 30 years of strategic planning experience, mostly in developing what I like to call “business-IT strategies.”

And, to be clear, as a consultant I was doing the work of a Business Relationship Manager—much of business relationship management is consulting!

But There Is No Business Strategy!

My first tip initially surfaced about 25 years ago. I had the privilege to be presenting at a Society for Information Management CIO conference in Arizona. The keynote speaker was Professor F. Warren McFarlane, Harvard Business School. His presentation to a very large group of Chief Information Officers (about 300 as I recall) was on business-IT alignment. When it came time for Q&A, one CIO asked the killer question:

Everything you suggest about aligning IT strategy with the business strategy makes sense—except that in our company there is no business strategy!  What am I to do?

McFarlane roared in his inimitable style:

You CIOs always make the same mistake (going to the flip chart next to his lectern). You draw two boxes, one above the other. The top box you label ‘Business Strategy’ and the bottom box you label ‘IT Strategy’, and you draw arrows in both directions connecting the boxes. Then you complain that the top box is empty. It’s time you realized that THE TOP BOX IS ALWAYS EMPTY and as a CIO it’s your job to FILL THE TOP BOX!

In my own experience, this scenario has played out many times. I’d be hired by a CIO to develop an IT strategy on the premise that there was a complete business strategy. Once the engagement began, it became quite apparent that there was no business strategy—just a bunch of financial targets, and perhaps some ‘slogans’ (e.g. Increase share of customer wallet!) with no clue as to how the targets were to be achieved!

From IT Strategy to Business-IT Strategy – The Twist That Made The Difference

My solution? Quietly rename the goal of our work from “develop the IT Strategy” to “develop the Business-IT Strategy” and use this as a ruse to engage business executives in thinking about their goals and how information and Information Technology could help achieve them (and more)! So, we would approach the senior business executives with the explanation that we were developing a Business-IT Strategy and needed to ensure we really understood and were enabling the business strategy. There were several significant outcomes from this approach:

  1. There now was an “operationalizable” business strategy for achieving the financial goals. The slogans now had specific initiatives and plans as to how they were to be achieved.
  2. There was an aligned (actually, business-integrated) IT strategy for enacting the business strategy and achieving the financial goals.
  3. Business and IT strategies were not separate deliverables—they were integrated—you could not examine the business strategy without being exposed to the IT strategy and vice-versa.
  4. The approach helped break down walls, create common language and mutual understanding.
  5. The inter-dependencies between business and IT became clear. The old maxim, “Businesses get the IT they deserve!” took on a new and constructive meaning.
  6. The relationship between the business executives and the IT organization were dramatically improved.
  7. Business leadership and IT leadership were aligned around a set of goals, with programs and projects to achieve those goals.
  8. There weren’t “business programs” and “IT programs”—just “programs” so they stayed aligned.

This Business-IT Strategy approach worked well for me many times. As an interesting variation on this scenario, once (not that many years ago!) when a CIO first approached me to help develop an IT strategy and I asked about the quality of the business strategy, he said:

There is a business strategy but it’s secret!

As clarification, I asked did he mean secret from me?  “No!” he replied. It was even secret from him! The good news was that by coming at the IT strategy work as a Business-IT Strategy we achieved the goal, and fleshed out what turned out to be a very ‘thin’ strategy that was mostly predicated on growth by acquisition and they did not want that fact to get out to potential acquirees.

We Have A Robust Strategic Planning Methodology!

Another relatively common trap is illustrated by a very different situation that I was involved in a few years ago with a global transportation and logistics company. I was retained to help them develop their IT strategy and was told that the business really did have a very formal and robust strategy development process, managed by their Corporate Strategy Office. This was a really big deal for the company, and mid-level and senior managers from around the globe were brought into headquarters for days, and in some cases, weeks, to work through the strategic planning effort. I was delighted! It’s always exciting to work with a mature and successful company with great management disciplines!

When A Robust Methodology Becomes a Trap

Once I got on the ground with my client, a couple of realities became clear:

  1. The Corporate Strategy Office was not very strategic! Their methodology was mostly around financial numbers—the same kind of “management by accountants” that almost killed my favorite brands, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Fender musical instruments. “Remove a bolt here and a clip there—nobody will notice and we’ll save 6 cents on every unit!” The same thinking almost killed the Detroit auto business until Japan, Inc. woke them up!
  2. When I asked how IT was involved in the strategic planning approach, I got a very blank stare! “Why would IT be involved in strategy formulation?”

In this case, finding an excuse to meet with the leadership team on the guise of clarifying some directional questions that could have significant implications for IT platforms and investment got me to a meeting where I asked a bunch of powerful questions about business strategy. Within days, IT leaders were added to all the strategic planning teams. Also, the rigorous methodology was “relaxed” to enable some real strategic issues and their information and IT implications to be debated. The outcome was highly valued and led to significant changes in the business model and executive office—and to an update of the methodology!

Lessons Learned for the BRM?

  1. Be wary when you are told there is a business strategy.
  2. A strong business strategy is a nice thing to have, but a weak one, or, even better, a lack of business strategy is a golden opportunity for the BRM to have a real impact.
  3. When you hear the terms “Business Strategy” or “IT Strategy”, ask yourself (and your stakeholders), “How can we turn this into a Business-IT Strategy?”
  4. When you hear there is a robust Strategic Planning Methodology, find out how key IT resources are engaged in that process and what are the key deliverables. If there is not a Business-IT Strategy, how can you shape the process to create one?

Image courtesy of socialmedia today