The IT Strategy plans that we CIOs have produced faithfully year after year, based on the textbook consulting models of the past, seem to be increasingly poor guidebooks for the work of delivering IT solutions to complex businesses. Much effort is put into developing a three-year target state or a five-year target state, designing architectures and carefully detailing the roadmaps, and then tracking activity against plans. But too quickly the plans become out of date to the extent that they either need major revision, or tracking against them is simply no longer a valuable measure of progress. [See also: Developing the right IT strategy - How to support business strategy with technology]

Since most of us realise that this isn't a very sensible use of time, various strategies are deployed to 'cope' with the strategic planning process itself. Most disturbing is the tendency to summarise at a level of abstraction that results in a 'motherhood and apple pie' document which could be made applicable to the business in almost any time or context. In this scenario, the strategic plan quickly becomes a high level 'positioning' text to inform the world at large about the function, not a clear statement of specific intended outcomes.

How did we end up in this unfortunate situation?

Quite simply, the world is moving much faster than it was when we first adopted this approach to planning. The pace of change in the last two decades has grown by orders of magnitude. The world is becoming more connected, and thus more complex. The businesses we support are changed dramatically by technology. And the society we serve is changing: aging, urbanisation and inequality have huge impact.

So we are living in complex turbulent times. Which means we need strategy more than ever, but our traditional approaches to strategy don't serve us well in this new environment.

A multi-faceted, adaptive approach

We need to acknowledge that a one-size-fits-all approach to strategy definition is not viable in the complex turbulent times we live in. What seems clear, when I look at the businesses I have supported in my recent career, is that we need a suite of different approaches to strategy.

Where the business context and needs are predictable, we can analyse and plan and execute using the traditional approach, but where the business context and needs are turbulent it can be virtually impossible to forecast demand. The most fruitful approach is to experiment, select, scale up, iterate. A very different way of thinking about strategy.

Some business activities can be directly shaped by the delivery of new technology. In these situations, we can envisage something that doesn't exist today, and then we can create and exploit that vision. A further variant in strategic approach.

And some business areas are simply stressed to the extent that they can only accommodate a triage approach at a point in time, and a more sophisticated discussion about strategy is pointless. The goal is mere survival. We have to focus activities, free up resources to deal with issues and thus enable migration to a less survival-focused approach.

But even if I establish which of these approaches is applicable to each part of my organisation today, it's clear that conditions will change over time, and increasingly quickly.

So a useful strategy must describe the right approach to delivering progress, for each business, at each point in time. And we need to keep the strategy vibrant, dynamic and adaptive to the changing environment.

How could we put this into practice operationally?

I believe a strategy plan fit for purpose in 2016 must contain three things:

  1. An over-arching, macro view of key business goals.
  2. Mechanisms for ensuring we have a continuous mutual understanding of the environment.
  3. A framework, with clearly defined criteria, to guide continuous planning and re-planning.

The core aspect of this new strategy process is creating a facility for constantly re-evaluating, re-assessing and re-interpreting the operating environment, but participating in this process collectively, with the express goal of achieving common understanding about that environment. We need to be constantly in touch with how our business partners are interpreting environmental changes and how those changes alter their goals and their sense of the journey towards achieving those goals.

Mutual understanding of the environment

There are many aspects of the operating environment that need to be kept under review, but the three key things we need to share a common view on are:

  • The specific environment or context for each business: How are changes in the operating environment impacting each of our businesses specifically?
  • The key business goals: how are these changes impacting the business goals? It's incredibly easy to get out of sync with business thinking when the environment is changing rapidly.
  • Our current state: how are changes in the environment impacting the way our systems operate today?

We need to put in place mechanisms which force us to be constantly handshaking with each other, and with our business partners, on the interpretation of the environment.

In a fast-moving world, our relationships with our users really need to be rich and deep, since success depends on a mutual understanding both of the way in which the environment is changing and the appropriate response to those changes.

Clear criteria for planning

Having built a clear mutual understanding of a change in context, the next natural step in the traditional strategy process would have been to re-plan in some detail.

But as this operating environment is evolving so quickly, there's no longer time to pause and recut the department strategy presentations, produce a revised three-year view of target state, and recut the roadmap for each stream of activity.

In this new environment the only viable approach is to allow managers throughout the organisation to determine the appropriate changes to their own plans within their own teams with their own day-to-day business partners.

Of course, such delegated planning authority must operate within agreed boundary conditions: broadly-defined business goals which must be achieved within a budget, probably with some limitations in terms of resources and within some agreed timeframe. The long-term view still creates the context for our planning, but within that we need to enable some 'in-flow' planning, led by individual managers at various levels within IT and the business.

This clearly requires individual managers to exercise their own judgement in respect of strategy. At this point strategy is not a process of mapping and executing to plan; it's a creative, interpretive, dynamic process.

Of course, you can guarantee that there will be many different available interpretations of any given change in strategic context. So to keep these judgements 'safe', we as leaders need to provide some sort of decision framework, but this now needs to be in the form of criteria for operational decision-making, not decisions themselves.

To be very clear, I'm not suggesting an approach in which we revert to short-term thinking. In the world of Agile development, it's easy to default to delivery of alphas and betas when long-term planning is complex. But I'm not advising that; I'm proposing a genuine ongoing review of the short, medium and long-term strategic plan, at the level of the delivery stream rather than at the top of the department.

So our strategy becomes a macro-view of key business goals, a mechanism for the ongoing assessment of the operating environment and a framework for decision making: values, principles, standards, mechanisms for making judgements and decisions, and tests to apply to those decisions.

The most critical ingredient for success is to keep the interpretation of context safe by debating it collectively and by constantly socialising thinking across all the communities within the organisation. This approach to strategy thus drives a social process within the organisation.

Operational Impact

Of course, this is not an easy approach to stick to.

We all know that under the pressure of uncertainty and ambiguity we quickly revert back to what we know works. It will be very easy to dive in and make decisions for teams, effectively pulling the strategy-setting process back to the centre.

To stick to the framework approach and not revert to being prescriptive will require resilience and commitment.

And this approach changes the way we manage operationally in many ways:

  • We now need a framework for planning projects in a way which links activity to the evolving mandate, not to the 'delivery baseline'.
  • We need measures of delivery success which reflect the adaptation mandate. You're not necessarily successful if you deliver the system exactly as it was specified when it was conceived a year ago - you're successful if the system achieves the defined strategic goal within the continuously changing context of needs, technologies etc in which the program is running. These are interpretive measures, not absolute measures.
  • We need financial delegation that supports the need for the scale and nature of spend to adapt (within sensible boundaries) to evolving need.
  • Audit functions need to evolve to being near real-time auditors and course-correctors, and must be careful not to be inhibitors of adaptation.
  • Much of the leadership dialogue will be sharing of context and of the rationale for decisions which makes for a quite different conversation at the management team table.
  • Managing dependencies is particularly complex in an interpretive and adaptive environment.
  • And it's likely to change our talent strategy: We have to think about what kind of people thrive in this environment.

So - quite a challenge in many ways. But I believe this approach doesn't simply produce an effective relevant and actionable strategic plan, but also cultivates responsibility, ownership and a commitment to continuous dialogue between business client and IT delivery partner which is the critical foundation for successful IT delivery.

Sarah Wilkinson is CTO of the Home Office