Strategic Planning and Business Relationship Management – Tips and Traps from the Field

blue-ocean-strategy-640x416In our upcoming BRMI Webinar Strategic Planning Tools for the BRM (January 31, 11a-12p EST) we will be mainly focused on Strategic Planning Tools and Techniques, so I wanted to lead into that webinar with a few “tips and traps from the field.” These are drawn from some 30 years of strategic planning experience, mostly in developing what I like to call “business-IT strategies.”

And, to be clear, as a consultant I was doing the work of a Business Relationship Manager—much of business relationship management is consulting!

But There Is No Business Strategy!

My first tip initially surfaced about 25 years ago. I had the privilege to be presenting at a Society for Information Management CIO conference in Arizona. The keynote speaker was Professor F. Warren McFarlane, Harvard Business School. His presentation to a very large group of Chief Information Officers (about 300 as I recall) was on business-IT alignment. When it came time for Q&A, one CIO asked the killer question:

Everything you suggest about aligning IT strategy with the business strategy makes sense—except that in our company there is no business strategy!  What am I to do?

McFarlane roared in his inimitable style:

You CIOs always make the same mistake (going to the flip chart next to his lectern). You draw two boxes, one above the other. The top box you label ‘Business Strategy’ and the bottom box you label ‘IT Strategy’, and you draw arrows in both directions connecting the boxes. Then you complain that the top box is empty. It’s time you realized that THE TOP BOX IS ALWAYS EMPTY and as a CIO it’s your job to FILL THE TOP BOX!

In my own experience, this scenario has played out many times. I’d be hired by a CIO to develop an IT strategy on the premise that there was a complete business strategy. Once the engagement began, it became quite apparent that there was no business strategy—just a bunch of financial targets, and perhaps some ‘slogans’ (e.g. Increase share of customer wallet!) with no clue as to how the targets were to be achieved!

From IT Strategy to Business-IT Strategy – The Twist That Made The Difference

My solution? Quietly rename the goal of our work from “develop the IT Strategy” to “develop the Business-IT Strategy” and use this as a ruse to engage business executives in thinking about their goals and how information and Information Technology could help achieve them (and more)! So, we would approach the senior business executives with the explanation that we were developing a Business-IT Strategy and needed to ensure we really understood and were enabling the business strategy. There were several significant outcomes from this approach:

  1. There now was an “operationalizable” business strategy for achieving the financial goals. The slogans now had specific initiatives and plans as to how they were to be achieved.
  2. There was an aligned (actually, business-integrated) IT strategy for enacting the business strategy and achieving the financial goals.
  3. Business and IT strategies were not separate deliverables—they were integrated—you could not examine the business strategy without being exposed to the IT strategy and vice-versa.
  4. The approach helped break down walls, create common language and mutual understanding.
  5. The inter-dependencies between business and IT became clear. The old maxim, “Businesses get the IT they deserve!” took on a new and constructive meaning.
  6. The relationship between the business executives and the IT organization were dramatically improved.
  7. Business leadership and IT leadership were aligned around a set of goals, with programs and projects to achieve those goals.
  8. There weren’t “business programs” and “IT programs”—just “programs” so they stayed aligned.

This Business-IT Strategy approach worked well for me many times. As an interesting variation on this scenario, once (not that many years ago!) when a CIO first approached me to help develop an IT strategy and I asked about the quality of the business strategy, he said:

There is a business strategy but it’s secret!

As clarification, I asked did he mean secret from me?  “No!” he replied. It was even secret from him! The good news was that by coming at the IT strategy work as a Business-IT Strategy we achieved the goal, and fleshed out what turned out to be a very ‘thin’ strategy that was mostly predicated on growth by acquisition and they did not want that fact to get out to potential acquirees.

We Have A Robust Strategic Planning Methodology!

Another relatively common trap is illustrated by a very different situation that I was involved in a few years ago with a global transportation and logistics company. I was retained to help them develop their IT strategy and was told that the business really did have a very formal and robust strategy development process, managed by their Corporate Strategy Office. This was a really big deal for the company, and mid-level and senior managers from around the globe were brought into headquarters for days, and in some cases, weeks, to work through the strategic planning effort. I was delighted! It’s always exciting to work with a mature and successful company with great management disciplines!

When A Robust Methodology Becomes a Trap

Once I got on the ground with my client, a couple of realities became clear:

  1. The Corporate Strategy Office was not very strategic! Their methodology was mostly around financial numbers—the same kind of “management by accountants” that almost killed my favorite brands, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Fender musical instruments. “Remove a bolt here and a clip there—nobody will notice and we’ll save 6 cents on every unit!” The same thinking almost killed the Detroit auto business until Japan, Inc. woke them up!
  2. When I asked how IT was involved in the strategic planning approach, I got a very blank stare! “Why would IT be involved in strategy formulation?”

In this case, finding an excuse to meet with the leadership team on the guise of clarifying some directional questions that could have significant implications for IT platforms and investment got me to a meeting where I asked a bunch of powerful questions about business strategy. Within days, IT leaders were added to all the strategic planning teams. Also, the rigorous methodology was “relaxed” to enable some real strategic issues and their information and IT implications to be debated. The outcome was highly valued and led to significant changes in the business model and executive office—and to an update of the methodology!

Lessons Learned for the BRM?

  1. Be wary when you are told there is a business strategy.
  2. A strong business strategy is a nice thing to have, but a weak one, or, even better, a lack of business strategy is a golden opportunity for the BRM to have a real impact.
  3. When you hear the terms “Business Strategy” or “IT Strategy”, ask yourself (and your stakeholders), “How can we turn this into a Business-IT Strategy?”
  4. When you hear there is a robust Strategic Planning Methodology, find out how key IT resources are engaged in that process and what are the key deliverables. If there is not a Business-IT Strategy, how can you shape the process to create one?

Image courtesy of socialmedia today

[Note: This post originally appeared on the BRMI website on January 16, 2014]

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7 thoughts on “Strategic Planning and Business Relationship Management – Tips and Traps from the Field

  1. Vaughan,
    I have been following you for a while now. Bruce Lotier a colleague of mine, who respects you a great deal has referenced you a number of times and therefore, I have become a “follower.” This is great blog. Not sure how many CIOs really get this though, let alone BRMs.

    Most recently, I met with a CIO of a very large hospital conglomerate. One of my professional passions is around health care and my desire to contribute to it revolution which from my perspective requires turning health care organizations into learning organizations for all its stakeholders — patients, physicians, staff and ancillary support companies (vendors). And, because I believe that technology plays a central role in creating a learning organization, I recently got a meeting with the CIO of a very large hospital “conglomerate.” The CIO point blank told me “I really don’t have anything to do with strategy or patients or medical staff directly — you should talk to marketing or the training group!” And, he went on to say, “my number one goal over the next couple of years is to connect the ever increasing sites we have as part of this hospital– that’s about all we have time to focus on.” He was dismissive for sure of the woman in front of him (me) that was talking about the revolution upon us regarding health care and my fervent belief that at the core of this transformation is learning all of which is directly linked to assess, information, dialogue, knowledge sharing/exchange, problem solving and social media. He obviously did not agree with me. I left undeterred– but saddened that my main health care facility was operating in an era long gone.

    This is a long way of getting to your blog. I totally agree that most businesses have no concept of strategy or a documented plan—and a slogan is not a document! Yes!!! Yes!! Yes, the technology team can and should be at the center of steering the business to creating a real strategy that is more then accounting jargon around quarterly returns. However, all too often it is IT and the very leaders of IT/IS that are the obstacle to real strategy. This hospital CIO is not my first misguided CIO client — but good golly, when will we have technology leaders that really are willing to get out from their narrow agenda of keeping the lights on and step into the ring and drive the change we need in so many businesses if we hope to stay competitive?

    I have not read all your blogs. I would love to hear your perspective on a new job description for the CIO and technology leadership team that is needed for businesses that are struggling. We need to really turn the role of IT leadership completely upside down and make them business people /professionals first and technology experts second. Thoughts?

  2. Kristi,

    Thanks very much for following my blog, and for your thoughtful comment!
    A couple of points come to mind.

    1. I had the privilege to complete a major IT strategy and operating model assignment for a major medical center, with hospitals, academic institutions and research facilities. The CIO (who interestingly had come out of financial services) was a true visionary and innovator. He really ‘got it’ and helped transform the medical center. I tell you this to let you know, there is hope–even in healthcare!
    2. Your statement, “We need to really turn the role of IT leadership completely upside down and make them business people /professionals first and technology experts second.” is true, but challenging. The IT domain is full of wonderful opportunities, but also full of horrendous traps–just ask the Target CIO! So the CIO is, in some respects, between a rock and proverbial hard place. I actually blame business leadership. My favorite one-liner–business get the IT they deserve!
    3. You ask about my “perspective on a new new job description for the CIO and technology leadership team that is needed for businesses that are struggling”? I’ll cover this in a future post, but for now, I’ll refer back to my point 2 above. If the business is struggling, perhaps the problem is not wholly with the CIO and IT leadership team? (Though, of course, it often is!)

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