Making strategy that sticks

When CIOs are challenged with developing a strategy, the tendency is to approach strategy-making as an analytical rather than an emotional process. As a result, there is more focus on ensuring the right content than the right commitment.

Most agree that it’s better to be smart than rich, since smart people can typically make money, but dumb lasts forever. Likewise, being gifted with a strategic mindset is worthless without the ability to mobilize organizational commitment around the resulting strategy.

Let’s take a look at the typical IT approach to making strategy. Either by calendar or inclination, the CIO decides it is time to develop a strategic plan.

She tasks one of her brightest staff members to make it happen within the next three months. The staffer solicits the input of the other IT leaders and defines a scope that is challenging but doable within the prescribed timeline.

Broad participation is required, of course, so the staffer arranges for the CIO to announce the initiative as one of the organization’s top priorities and to attend the launch meeting.

Now, the strategy-making process begins. The plan calls for joint business-IT strategy-making to define the business context and the implications to IT-enabled capabilities. Once there is a good understanding of the needs of the business, the process will shift to defining how to meet those needs – from a technology and an organization perspective.

It all makes perfect sense until theory meets reality: gaining broad participation within the defined scope and timeline will be impossible – everybody is just too busy.

So the staffer makes a critical (and fatal) decision: to shift from strategy facilitator to strategy doer. This way, the strategy will be completed on time to serve as input to the financial planning process.

In the doer mode, the staffer conducts interviews externally and internally and drafts a document that meets the original scope. The CIO presents the strategy, and everybody nods their heads and gets back to business.

Unfortunately, a lot of effort was expended but little strategy was made. The acid test of strategy is whether it informs and constrains decision-making by compelling leaders to align their functional goals and day-to-day decision-making to the goals of the enterprise.

The only way to accomplish this is through communication and collaboration. The process of aligning people’s hearts and minds is a difficult one that requires ongoing group discussion, and wrangling.

No one can “do” strategy for someone else – it’s a leader’s job and one that is done collectively, not individually.

Let’s help our staffer out and rewind our scenario to the point where it was clear that the strategy process was going to fail. What the staffer needs to do is to open a discussion with the CIO and IT leaders about how to complete this iteration of the strategy.

Of course, we are talking about reducing scope by identifying the critical one or two issues that need to be addressed (for example, how to provide a 360-degree perspective of the customer across the enterprise).

While we are helping out, let’s also advise the CIO that she abdicated her strategy-making responsibilities by delegating them to the staffer. The accountability for making strategy is not a staff role but a leadership one.

Leaders need to pave the way with their business counterparts and leadership team and, in turn, hold them accountable for making strategy with their staff and partners.

Let’s also encourage our staffer and make sure he understands that he has an important role in making strategy. Staff resources should be used for defining and managing the process, coaching others through it, and integrating and overseeing the results to ensure focus and quality.

Those who are strategically gifted have a tendency to emphasize the quality of the idea over the quality of the commitment. Never approach strategy-making as a purely analytical exercise or trade-off, gaining emotional commitment in the quest to “get it right” or “get it done.”

Strategy is never done. In the process of shaping and informing future decision-making, it also must change to account for the new learning that occurs as those decisions are translated into action.

Susan Cramm is founder and president of Valuedance, an executive coaching firm in San Clemente, Calif. Contact her at

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