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Dare to Have a Written Strategy


By steve - Posted on 12 August 2011

Do the best with what you have, when you have it, where you are.
--Theodore Roosevelt

If you really want to build something and make a difference, you need to dare to have a written plan. Why "dare"? Because talk is cheap and ideas are nothing unless something is done about them. Set aside brainstorming and talking about what you might do and commit to a written plan. It could be one of the boldest and most important things you do. If you write it down, you might actually be held accountable!

One of the best ways to document your plan is to create a 1/3/5-year strategy document for your area of control. If you're a consultant, that could be for your business. If you're an IT Director, it could be for your department. If you're in an entry level position, it could be for your career.

Just like when building a building, you need to know what you're starting with, know what you want to create, and know what you think it will take to get there. That is what you are trying to document in your written strategy.

Let's start with the purpose of why you are bothering to do this...

Purpose of an IT Strategy Document

Whatever you choose to do when creating the plan, the document should:

  • Show the relationship and alignment between the IT vision/mission and the organization’s vision/mission.
  • Show the relationship and alignment between the IT strategy and the organization’s strategy.
  • Explain current conditions (problems, issues, glaring dysfunction, opportunities, what’s being done right, where progress has been made).
  • Explain overall strategy that will be used to achieve vision/mission.
  • Describe tactically what will be done to achieve vision/mission for 1, 3, and 5 years.
  • Meet the main purposes of doing the document:
  • The act of going through the process of creating the document will help you understand what is going on and force you to put your assumptions in concrete terms.
  • When done reading it, the reader should have a good understanding of what is being done, where IT is headed, and why we are doing what we are doing.
  • You can use this document as a filter to help evaluate proposed projects, staffing changes, staffing requirements, capital investments, and other major changes in direction or operations to determine if they make sense, given our objectives/vision/mission. You can then determine if the change fits the strategy or if the strategy needs to be changed to fit the change.
  • Provide a starting point for the next strategy document.

Outline

Here’s an edited version of the outline I’ve used in the past. I use it as a guideline and adapt it as needed with emphasis on the areas that make the most sense for the situation:

1. Purpose of this document (why is this document being written, who will use it, and how it will be used)
2. How we got here (brief historical perspective)
3. Where things are (narrative of the current status/situation)
   a. Infrastructure
      i. Network
      ii. Servers
      iii. Workstations/laptops/netbooks
      iv. Power
   b. Security
   c. Processes and procedures
   d. Staff
   e. Other relationships
      i. Vendors
      ii. Partners
   f. Perceptions of the department
   g. Goals/projects achieved during the previous year
4. Where we are going (this is what we are trying to create)
   a. Organization’s vision/mission
   b. IT vision/mission
   c. IT framework (what is our filter for what we decide to do to achieve vision/mission?)
   d. IT indicators (what do we track and measure?)
   e. IT Operating principles
      i. Conduct
      ii. Methods
5. Influences (organize by Opportunities/Threats or by area of influence as shown here)
   a. Technological changes of significance
   b. Workforce
   c. Economics
   d. Finances
   e. Organizational
6. Goals (specific projects or milestones)
   a. 1-year goals
   b. 3-year goals
   c. 5-year goals
7. Summary (conclusions, follow-up expectations, call for action)

Notes

Keep in mind that, since this is the first pass at this, you may not be able to look beyond 1 or 3 years! The 5-year mark could be so far off in the horizon that it can’t be meaningfully expressed. However, you should be able to express the gap between where we are and where we need to be and have a strategy to get us there in x years.

The bullets and flow of this meet my needs. Adapt it or discard it as needed, but keep in mind that the top “the document should” section needs to be met as best as you possibly can for this exercise to be of any use.

I talk about the “IT vision/mission” as though they exist. If they don’t exist in written form, they exist in some form in reality. If they aren’t written down, do your best to identify and document the current state. To exaggerate, the default vision/mission may be something like: vision; “everyone is happy and we do whatever, regardless consequences”, mission; “keep our jobs”. Management and the department’s customers may also have their own idea of the department’s vision/mission. If so, document it and note that the vision/mission need to be defined. Then be sure to put it on the 1-year goals.

You could go with a more traditional SWOT format with Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, but I think that only works in a strategy document if you also add conclusions tied to the org and IT vision/mission and take the next step and detail the goals that will address the S, W, O, and T’s. I just find that too limiting and too tactical for my taste.

Finally, I’ve added notes in () in the outline to help you understand the sections (they wouldn’t be in my document) and I’ve added a glossary below the signature to clarify my definition of some of the strategy buzzwords.

Glossary

Goals: Measurable, achievable projects or milestones that have an end.

Indicators: Measurements we use to track performance or lack of.

Influences: Things that impact our work and ability to achieve our strategy.

IT Framework: The filter we use to see if we are on track.

Mission: What we do (or must achieve). Usually a sentence or two that describes our work and why we do it.

Operating principles: How we work (what we will do or not do) with emphasis on ethics/conduct and methods.

Process: Work that repeats with no end with, hopefully, defined parameters for quality, time, and responsibility.

Project: Work that has a beginning and an end, usually requiring the coordination of resources, skills, and time.

Strategy: Plan for achieving vision/mission.

Vision: What we are trying to create. Usually one brief, clear sentence.

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