CIOs' three Cs for an effective IT plan: Context, creativity, cascade

How to make sure your IT strategy doesn't end up on the shelf gathering dust

What separates a strategic plan that ends up gathering dust from one that really benefits the business is a telling difference of approach, says Andrew Horne.

Almost every IT leader writes a strategic plan at some point. The intent is clear: provide a concise, readable summary of how investments in IT will further business goals. But the resulting plan is often anything but clear.

A recent CIO Executive Board survey found plenty of room for improvement with less than 23 per cent of business partners rating IT's strategic planning effective.

So what differentiates a plan that becomes the linchpin of IT management from a plan that ends up as so many dense and confusing pages sitting on a shelf? CIOs often send us strategic plans for review. Some of these plans are very good, others less so. But together they point to three main trends.

  1. IT strategy is developed in a vacuum
    The primary function of the IT strategy is to align IT initiatives with business strategy.

    Yet many IT plans appear to be developed independent of corporate plans and surprisingly few define business goals or explain the link to IT. When these connections do exist, they are often loose, with metrics not being aligned back to corporate goals.

  2. IT strategy fails to be strategic
    Many IT strategic plans simply update past years' goals. They ignore the forward-looking perspective that makes planning strategic. What should be a focused and creative exercise instead becomes bureaucratic box-checking.

    Often, the IT plan contains an exhaustive and unprioritised to-do list, where IT reacts to business needs but does not shape them.

  3. Strategy is divorced from execution
    Many IT strategic plans underestimate the importance of communicating and cascading strategy. There are several problems here. First, IT strategy is rarely described in a way that can be easily shared. Second, the plan's objectives are not tied to incentives.

    Finally, technology roadmaps, portfolio rationalisation plans, and budgets in many strategic plans were at best only loosely linked and there was little clarity on the capabilities required for execution.

The answers to these problems can be summed up as the three Cs of IT strategic planning: context, creativity and cascade. Context is about linking IT goals to business strategy and ensuring the goals stay relevant. Creativity involves infusing new and innovative ideas into IT strategy. Finally, cascade means making sure the plan is actually implemented.

C for context
IT strategy should align with established business goals. As context can change rapidly, assumptions should be documented to show when to stay the course and when to make quick corrections.

Aligning strategies is often easier said than done. If a clear process for defining business strategy exists, and if this process produces enough detail to work with, then the first step for IT leaders is to link the IT and business planning cycles.