The word strategy comes from a Greek word whose original meaning can be translated as the “art of a general”. Since the 1800s, the contemporary meaning of the term has developed within a military context, and since the 1950s, in a business context as well. The current definition on Wikipedia has become broader and makes sense in many multiple contexts: “Strategy is a general plan to achieve one or more long-term or overall goals under conditions of uncertainty.”
By definition, a strategy is a plan to achieve one or more long-term or overall objectives under conditions characterized by uncertainty.
That makes a lot of sense: When something is so complex and variable that it is not possible to set out precise objectives or plan in great detail, it is necessary to move in the direction that seems optimal at present. The alternative is that we act randomly, without coordination and without aiming points and that doesn’t usually give very good results.
We could close it there but we won’t. The question of whether strategies make sense in this agile, digital world is still very relevant. How do we deal with the fact that we have to expect that the terms and general conditions will change significantly during the strategy period?
Our answer consists of two points:
- The time horizon of the strategy has to harmonize with the challenge to be solved.
- The strategy must be revisited and possibly adjusted along the way.
The time horizon depends on the diagnosis
In a previous article we explained how good strategies always have a kernel that consists of a diagnosis (a well-defined challenge), a guiding policy (strategic guidelines and principles) as well as coherent action (efforts derived from the diagnosis and guiding policy).
When you want to set a realistic time scale for a given IT strategy, considering the problem or the challenge you are faced with is highly relevant. It is not until you have a complete understanding of the actual problem to be solved that you can say anything meaningful and specific about how far out into the future the strategy should aim for.
For instance, a strategy for technology sourcing is usually long-term, whereas a strategy for optimizing expenses has a shorter time frame.
Revisit the strategy on an ongoing basis and adjust coherent action
The strategy must be revisited and adjusted on a regular basis. In principle, this applies to all elements. A plan always has to be adjustable. Coherent action – all of the key action areas necessary to realize the strategy – should be able to accommodate new terms and conditions.
In general, if the diagnosis is correct (we act to solve the ‘right’ challenge) then the strategic principles (guiding policy) are probably durable, while the actions that enable us to reach our future objectives (coherent action), usually shift over time due to new technological possibilities or changed circumstances or priorities within the organization.
This variability accounts for the major challenge of working with IT strategies that have a longer time horizon. A good example of this is the development of a cloud strategy, which is important and business-critical for many organizations, yet, due to the constant advances in this area, it is impossible to see and plan coherent actions several years into the future.
Our approach to long-term strategies
The figure below illustrates the time perspective of working on IT strategies with a long time horizon.
The figure illustrates a strategy with three themes. Each theme has a strategic aiming point that the actions/projects within steer towards. The aiming points are to be seen as navigation points, and not as goals in themselves.
In the near future (this year), coherent actions (the stars) can be planned in greater detail within the framework of the strategy and with the knowledge of the budget, resources and the current possibilities. The later coherent actions (next year, or later) can be plotted in without the same degree of detail in order to create a cohesive image, while understanding that these will be revisited on an ongoing basis, updated or substituted in keeping with the execution of the strategy.
“Continuous reassessments and adjustments of a strategy are often much more effective than major strategy processes
A strategy should be taken up for revision e.g. every six months and examined holistically in relation to the present context. What is the status of the progress so far? Have there been any important changes in the circumstances and framework conditions? Is there a need to revise the strategy?
Continuous reassessments and adjustments of a strategy are often much more effective than major strategy processes with years between them. Additionally, this gives you the opportunity to maneuver and change course in order to create maximum value for the organization.
About the authors
Kristian Sørensen is CEO & Sr. Principal at IT ADVISORY. As a trusted management advisor and IT strategy expert, Kristian helps organizations set structure and direction for strategic initiatives and projects. Reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sune Dybdal is Ass. Partner at IT ADVISORY. Sune is a business-oriented digital consultant and strategic advisor. Sune is an expert at facilitation, change management and behavioral design. Reach out to him at email@example.com.