Technology is transforming the way we do business. It is changing customer behaviour and expectations, and it is creating more dynamic markets where speed and agility are more important than size and brand. To compete in this new style of market, business strategies need to be flexible and organisations need to be able to change direction, reprioritise and create new capabilities more quickly and more often than they have done in the past.
This need to operate at the speed of digital has a number of implications for CIOs in terms of how they set the overall direction for technology, how they structure and organise the IT department, and the tools, techniques and processes used by their technology teams. In a previous article on Developing the right IT strategy I explained how CIOs could use an agile approach to developing their technology strategy to ensure that IT remains aligned with changing business needs and can support an organisation that is operating at the speed of digital.
As with agile development, agile strategy is based on the concept of sprints, or planning periods – organisations faced with fast changing markets may need to work on a 6-12 month horizon whereas companies in more stable markets may select a 12-24 month planning period. Working with the rest of the business, CIOs should identify the business capabilities that need to be prioritised during each planning period and then identify the technology initiatives required to address any gaps between the current and required level of the priority business capabilities during that period.
But what happens when the organisation identifies the need for a large project that lasts longer than the agreed planning horizon? How can the CIO ensure that the technology platform and IT function can respond to changes in business priorities in the short-term if they have resources and funds committed to delivering long-term projects? The obvious answer to this dilemma is to break large-scale initiatives down into distinct and discrete stages or projects that correspond to a planning period with each stage delivering a working and usable solution that realises value for the organisation. It should also be possible to stop or delay the project after each stage if other priorities that need to be addressed in the next planning horizon are identified. Hence, committing to the next stage of a large initiative should not automatically commit the business to subsequent stages of the implementation.
Indeed, with technology moving to the front of the organisation in the digital world, CIOs would be well advised to avoid projects with long timescales even if they do not adopt the agile approach to strategy. By definition, technology projects that are large and/or have long timescales carry more risk than smaller projects delivered over a shorter period – the headline grabbing IT failures in the public and private sectors almost without exception involve multi-year projects with budgets that run into the millions. And, with business priorities changing more frequently in digital markets, there is also an increased risk that a long-term project will deliver a solution that no longer meets the organisation’s needs.
Technology has changed significantly in recent years; cloud and as-a-service offerings, in particular, have made it possible for organisations to implement new solutions far more quickly than was previously possible. APIs have made integration and data sharing between systems a much simpler task. And mobile apps mean that a new or upgraded solution can be deployed to large numbers of users with minimal effort and, if designed well, without the need for a major training programme.
Frequently changing business priorities, the need to operate at speed and shorter planning horizons are all pushing CIOs towards delivering solutions over shorter timescales than they have done in the past. And, fortunately, the technology is there to enable them to do this. So are we getting to the point at which there is no need or justification for big technology projects that run for multiple years? Certainly I think it is becoming more questionable as to whether such mega-projects are necessary. And whenever I hear a CIO talking about such an initiative I wonder whether it really is the only way to meet the organisation’s needs or whether it is more a reflection of the CIO’s own preferences or background.
When faced with a project proposal that spans multiple years, CIOs should challenge their teams to identify alternative approaches that are shorter in timescale. This might lead to choosing different technologies, services, products or partners. Or it could involve redesigning the solution so that it is modular with each module being delivered as a separate initiative that delivers value and which does not commit the business to the development of subsequent modules. Stakeholders should also be involved in this process both to prioritise the high-level business capabilities and also to get their views on how a project can be reduced to less than a year.
Organisations need to be able to respond quickly to opportunities and threats if they want to survive and succeed in the fast-paced markets that are the hallmark of the digital world. With technology being fundamental to digital, CIOs have a key role to play in enabling their business to operate at the speed of digital. Putting an end to multi-year projects is one of things they can do to achieve this.