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Strategic Fitness

Strategic Fitness

Leadership Agenda - Strategies for building relationships.

A crash course in strategic planning.

Whenever I begin a new exercise program, I feel great and wonder why I waited so long to start. It's the same way with strategic planning. We all feel better when we are strategically fit. Unfortunately, as with physical exercise, a million little daily demands often keep us from doing what's best for our long-term career health.

A lot of my executive coaching clients use me as their personal trainer for strategic planning. They could do strategy without me, but they want to do it right with the least amount of effort. I always start with a fitness assessment. To determine if you are strategically fit, ask yourself these questions.

Does your strategy address the why and the what questions - that is, the business rationale and the applications plan - as well as the how and the who questions - that is, the technology and organisational elements? There are a lot of grand ideas without the legs to make them happen. Conversely, a lot of people draw up tactical to-do lists without the raison d'être. Make sure you cover all the bases.

Can your strategy be summarised in a few sentences? A health-care executive recently told me: "I think I have a strategy; I'm just unable to articulate it." If you can't pitch it, you don't have it.

Are the benefits articulated as well as the costs are? A lot of strategic plans I review have entire appendixes dedicated to costs, while the benefits are bullet points listed on a single page. The value proposition should be as detailed as the costs.

Do you have an implementation plan backed up with the money and resources to realise it? Can you measure and monitor success?

By definition, a good strategy gets implemented. That means you need commitment from all of your stakeholders. Many IT executives assume that their stakeholders are the same people for all strategic dimensions. It's not so. For the why and what questions, your stakeholders are your business counterparts and the people who help them think about IT. For the how and who questions, the primary stakeholders are your direct reports within the IS organisation. The how and who strategies are driven by the why and what strategies. If you try to get your business counterparts to participate in the how and who questions, you will bore them senseless.

If your answers to the those questions uncover some weaknesses in your planning, you can use a strategy process that I recommend for my clients. I have adapted it from a Harvard Business Review article titled "Making Strategy: Learning by Doing" (November-December 1997) by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen.

Step 1: Assess your current positioning. Do a classical SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis of your department's state of affairs. Get your stakeholders to pick the top five issues and opportunities for further analysis.

Step 2: Analyse the top issues or opportunities to identify the forces that are driving them. Ask "why" five times until you get to the underlying causes. At this point you will have five to 20 root causes. Ask your stakeholders to pick the one or two most important root causes. Write "driving force statements" (see Christensen's article for examples).

Step 3: Define your objectives and measurements for each root cause.

Step 4: Identify two or three actions that would best address each root cause and further your objectives and measurements. These are your strategies. Document them using Christensen's strategy matrix.

Step 5: Define a project-based implementation plan with assignments and resource requirements for the next year.

Christensen says that an outside facilitator can help a management team work through these steps in a few intense days. If you are new to strategic planning, you probably won't feel comfortable asking senior executives to give you three full days offsite. Do the best you can.

You don't have to be brilliant to generate a great strategy. Strategy is a guess about the future, tested in real time and iterative in nature. It's a process, not a project. And as Christensen says, a good strategy-making process will do a lot to improve your ability to think strategically.

Susan Cramm, former CIO and vice president of IT at Taco Bell and former CFO and executive vice president at Chevys, is president of Valuedance, a California-based executive coaching firm.

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