Time For Actionable Strategy

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book Actionable Strategy: How IT Transforms Traditional Strategic Planning which focuses on the changing nature of strategic planning in light of the disruptive technologies that permeate every industry.

It has been my experience that strategic planning has always gotten a bad rap.  Strategy has often been viewed as a theoretical exercise, a make work project, that yields a lofty plan that is placed on a shelf to collect dust.  The sad reality is that in many respects, strategic planning has earned that bad rap.  I’ve been inside numerous organizations where past strategic attempts have results in exactly that scenario.  From an IT perspective, which is where I’ve focused most of my strategic engagements, grand plans have often been developed only to find no foothold within the organization to begin adding any value.  I started asking myself the question “why” many years ago.  Why is it that strategic planning seems to yield so little result in many circumstances?  About 6 six years ago, I realized that IT strategic planning was missing an important element, namely, a solid connection to the business it found itself in.  There was often a disconnect between the business and the IT group. Any strategy produced in this kind of silo approach was doomed for failure.

At the time, I refined my approach to delivering strategy to ensure that it began and ended with the business and the goals of the business.  I took the huge cookie cutter approach methodologies and created a series of tool kits that were rooted in understanding an organization and its business.  I called my approach at the time Business First Strategy to reflect the mindset that IT could not be viewed strategically, until a solid understanding of the business needs were established and supported.  In time, I refined my approach to take into account a new dimension that began to emerge back in 2008.  Strategic planning exercises simply took too long.  The longer the time frame, the higher the risk that the strategy would fail.  This was true for a number of reasons:

  • stakeholder would come and go.  Organizations changed and often you’d have to deal with different people.
  • the business environment changed before you could finish the strategic planning exercise and people would get discouraged that they were dealing with a moving target
  • the cost to deliver a big bang approach strategy was difficult to justify and if such an exercise did begin, the strategic objectives needed to provide huge ROI to justify the process in the first place

Taking those factors into consideration, my approach to strategic planning for IT built off of my previous work, but endeavoured to chunk planning done into smaller pieces of work.  Each piece of strategic work would have to standalone and produce value on its own.  That value, if proven to be true, would drive further future strategic engagements.  I called this approach Rapid Strategy, which allowed me to deliver strategic IT plans to organizations within a 90-day period.  This was a real breakthrough moment for me and the many client’s I was privileged to work with.  It allowed me to take my initial toolkit approach and find ways (processes and technology) to accelerate the process.  It’s a “do it fast” and “uncover surprises fast” and “make adjustments fast” and “realize value fast” approach.

Now in 2011 it seems that the strategic planning approach needs to evolve once again.  It’s a natural evolution that has been occurring, but has now been accelerated because of the environment we are finding ourselves in.  The progression has been to take strategic planning from a step-by-step cookbook approach, first to an approach rooted in business needs, then to an approach that was faster and now, for the next step in strategy, to transform it into an approach that retains the value in the first two iterations but added a much-needed third component.  What is that component?


I first began to realize that something was missing when I observed what happened to strategy I’d done after I’d delivered it to an organization.  In some cases, I stayed involved at the organization’s request and we observed that real and expected value began to be realized from the strategy.  In some cases I remained with organizations through to the completion of the implementation of strategic plans, and again, there was value.  There were instances, however, where I was not involved in the implementation of strategy, only to find out later that the organization hadn’t realized the value they’d hoped for.

After seeing this several times, I knew that the toolkit and my strategic planning process needed to evolve to allow organizations to take action.  There needs to be a way to take strategy from 50,000 feet and put it into action on the ground.  It was from this need that my approach to strategy evolved into Actionable Strategy.  It is important to recognize this changing need in strategic planning for IT within organizations, otherwise, strategic initiatives will be seen as failed attempts and we will once again see strategy getting a bad rap within companies.  I would argue, however, that now, more than ever, the need for actionable strategy is more important that ever for a number of key reasons facing every business out there.

  1. The volatile nature of the economy demands that organizations react in a nimble fashion.  With the market changing, a business that cannot react quickly, may find itself losing market share unexpectedly.  Moving quickly, however, does mean that you should be reactive.  Strategic, proactive steps are required to ensure good business decisions.  The same is true for IT.  As organizations find themselves changing course more frequently to navigate the turbulent global environment, IT needs to be able to move quickly with them, but to do so without adherence to an overarching strategy will lead to issues down the road.  You may find that you are reacting too slowly and hence your organization will see the IT function as a hinderance.  You may move quickly, but not assess risk adequately and introduce catastrophic, unacceptable risks to your organization.  You may move quickly, consume limited IT resources (like dollars!) only to find that you have no resources (dollars!) to adapt the next time a sudden shift in the business occurs.
  2. The dynamic and disruptive nature of technology is accelerating.  Failure to have a strategy that leaves you with the tools to action it will result in organizations missing out on ways to leverage new methods of IT delivery or technologies that can transform the way your organization works.  Too often IT groups are what I call “ticket takers” – they sit back, wait for a ticket to arrive with an order, and they fill it.  Today’s rapid changes in technology, everything from mobile computing to cloud-based adaptable services, will render the ticket-taking model of IT obsolete.  Organizations that don’t find ways to delivery an actionable strategy that allows the business and IT to move in lockstep with the changing technology landscape will find themselves unexpectedly disrupted in their own industry.
  3. End users are rapidly becoming more sophisticated.  They have been accustomed to dealing with other organizations in their personal life who deliver IT services to them that do indeed embrace the new technology paradigm (banks, telcos, consumer electronics, etc).  These end-users then come back into their own work environment and wonder “why can’t my IT group deliver such and such to me”.  Too often these days IT groups try to stifle the leading edge “stuff” that their end-users are trying to have introduced into the organization.  The iPad is a classic example of this.  It didn’t come into organizations from the IT departments, rather, it came in through the front door!  End-users brought them in and IT groups scrambled to figure out how to support them.  Worse, businesses had no idea what value to expect.  There was no actionable strategy in place to do so.  Companies and IT departments looked at this trend as a potential threat (use of IT resources time, security issues) as opposed to seeing it as a huge opportunity to empower and transform their workforce.

It is because of these three very real emerging trends that the importance of actionable strategy has come to the forefront.  Organizations that ignore them do so at their own peril.  They are destined to either ignore strategy all together and accept simply being reactive, or they will find themselves producing (or receiving) strategy that once completed, is relegated to a shelf only to collect dust.  A missed opportunity once again and another black mark against the cause of strategic planning.

Categories: Business & Technology, Strategy

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16 replies

  1. Wow! Insightful post. When it the book coming out?

  2. Excellent excerpt. Look forward to reading the entire book. Strategy is important but often neglected not just in IT but in business as a whole.

  3. Very interesting. Does your book discuss how to create action? Look forward to reading more.

  4. Had the pleasure of watching you in action years ago. Look forward to the book coming out. What is the publication date?

  5. Saw this shared on LinkedIn. Excellent perspective. Do you assist companies in the US?

  6. What a pleasant surprise to find such a thought provoking article in my inbox this morning. I would be interested in chatting with you personally if possible since I have been grappling with some issues that your approach might be able to assist me.
    Thank You

  7. What does it really mean to create a strategy though? Tech changes so quickly that you can’t adhere to some master game plan. That’s just blindly proceeding without ongoing though IMHO but hey whatever works for you I guess.

  8. This was a super article perhaps the best so far on your blog, followed by the What Should RIM Focus on article and the ecosystem article. Really enjoying your posts.

  9. Very good post. Seems like an interesting book. Will it be an ebook or physical or both? If an ebook I will probably buy it.

  10. Does your approach build off of classical approaches to strategy like Porter or have you developed something entirely new to fit the digital business environment we are current in?

  11. Really like to teaser for the book. I think one of the real turnoffs for strategic planning was the cumbersome methodologies offered by IBM and many of the large consulting firms, like Accenture.

    I prefer to use the term Strategic Management.

    Some of your ideas reminded me of two of my blogs. One on my Cloud Theory of planning (see http://pxltd.typepad.com/project_x_discussions/2006/06/the_cloud_theor.html)
    The other was a fun methodology we called AIM. see (http://blog.pxltd.ca/2006/03/a_new_methodolg.html)

    I think you are onto a really great idea. Please do not make the book an opus magnus. It does not have to be the definitive work at least in the first edition. Good luck,


  12. Some great ideas here and I’d be curious to see some of the approaches you use to move from purely academic strategy like the Big 4 to a more actionable strategy as you suggest. I’ve had management consultants try to assist several times and each time their strategies are either generic and broad or they are self serving documents. In many cases the strategy just parrots what the person hiring the consultants wants to hear.

    I hope you post more blogs on this subject as I am very interested. I look forward to reading your book. I googled it Amazon but didn’t find it. Is there a set publication date?

  13. Marshall, I totally agree with your point about pie in the sky strategies that drive the company into the ground. In Canada, one of the large grocery retailer are being pushed to the edge by one of these grand strategies.

    Most consultants do not consider the readiness of an organization to make the changes and the capability to manage the change. They simply see it as a great business opportunity. Of course the client wants the magic pill to make it all better. One sign that they are not capable is the huge number of consultants and IBMers they hire to implement the strategy.

  14. This sounds great! Looking forward to reading more!

  15. Wow! This was really an excellent read. I stumbled on your blog through linkedIn today and really enjoy the strategic perspective you bring without all the marketing fluff so many other sites do. Where can I get a copy of your book?

  16. I came across your blog this evening through a LinkedIn reshare and your posts under strategy are fantastic. The one on Risk from today and this one are thought provoking. When is the book coming out and who do you consult with or are you an independent?

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