There is an endless supply of literature, articles, and management thinking around lofty topics like business strategy. Companies spend days in off-site locations crafting a fifty-word “mission statement” and considering how their lofty aspirations in some commodity industry will shape future generations, and revolutionize the global landscape. However, when everyone returns from the strategy meetings, grand ideas in hand, nothing changes, and even less happens where the rubber meets the road. In short, despite all the grand talk of strategy, things just don’t get done.
In IT we suffer from the same morass. We talk about strategy, the need for the CIO to have representation on the corporate board, and even endlessly debate the nuances between executive reporting relationships. These may be worthwhile considerations, but in many of these same IT shops, personnel run around in a permanent crisis mode, letting circumstance and the most pressing disaster guide their next action, rather than anything even vaguely strategic. Despite a permanent state of hectic “doing,” little forward momentum actually occurs.
Perhaps we are having the same strategy debates we were having 20 years ago because there is a disconnect between the lofty talk and the dirty work of actually executing on that vision. Here are three suggestions to apply the glue between strategy and the actual work of implementing it:
Relentlessly pursue the next action
The biggest time waster I’ve witnessed is the meeting without an outcome. We’ve all sat through these sessions, and even if several interesting discussions took place, participants are left wondering what ultimate objective was reached, or what concrete steps will occur as a result of the meeting. Similarly, when we discuss high-level strategic objectives, if we don’t take the time to determine what tasks will advance those objectives, and assign someone to pursue each task, strategy will remain like many a unwieldy mission statement: lots of fluff, no real business result.
When you build a culture focused on the next action, you develop a forward-thinking organization of doers. No longer are meetings glibly scheduled and accepted since participants know that unless they are advancing an objective, the wasted time will not be tolerated. Even at the individual level, communications become streamlined, and endless email chains are reduced as people are constantly driving towards doing, rather than endlessly debating.
There’s no time like the present
We’ve all heard the refrain that “there’s never enough time, people, or money.” Unfortunately, I can report with near 100% certainty that I have yet to meet the executive who happily reports that he or she is underworked and overpaid, and has an endless budget and more than enough staff to tackle any problem. Too often, we delay longer-term objectives and let the circumstances of the moment drive us. The VP in sales who needs something yesterday is usually a tempting objective, since we can usually fulfill these requests, and then pat ourselves on the back for helping an important colleague, while that daunting strategic project is delayed for yet another month.
Similarly, complex or risky decisions are delayed in the name of waiting for more information, or additional time for study, especially in organizations where the group’s culture punishes those that make an incorrect decision, and gives a free pass to those that never commit to any decision. Just as you’ll never have the perfect budget, or perfect staff mix, you’ll never have the perfect set of information to make a clear-cut, obvious decision. While there are certainly political and economic costs to making the wrong decision, there are often significantly more onerous costs to not making a decision at all. Generally, when you have around 80% of the information you need, make a decision and move forward, correcting and modifying the course as necessary. It is almost always better to arrive in the neighborhood of your destination today, than to arrive in the exact location six months down the line when the competitive landscape has moved the goal to the other side of the world.
While budgets for additional staff remain carefully watched, there is a raft of assistance available in the form of consultants and implementation firms. If you have a gut sense that your IT shop could be performing more effectively, but don’t know where to start, stop soul searching and wondering what you could have done better, and bring in someone to help you analyze the problem and develop a series of engagements to improve. With the right partner, most of these are fairly painless, and “minimally invasive,” allowing you to continue with the status quo while someone else guides you towards the next actions for improving your organization.
Similarly, these resources exist in abundance for developing your staff, and improving their ability to execute on your strategic vision. Merely muttering the fact that you’re looking for meeting management training, executive coaching, or organizational consulting will have a raft of players lined up at your door and willing to help in a cost-effective manner.
I’m reminded of the rather amusing trend to note where products are designed, with Apple’s “Designed in California” tag, printed in a large font above “Made in China” on most of their products. While design and strategy are certainly important to devices and organizations, they are nothing without competent execution.
Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO’s Companion. Prevoyance Group provides strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com.