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Business Mentor: The Long and Short of IT Strategy Planning

Use your long-term strategic goals to initiate short-term action.

A good friend of mine asked me to spend a day with his IT staff and help work on its IT strategic planning. Since this friend lets me take unlimited mulligans when we golf together, I agreed.

IT planning is something of a chicken-and-egg concept: Sometimes it should be based on business plans; sometimes it should lead business plans. IT planning is made more difficult if the business doesn't look beyond budgeting. After working with organizations that plan well (few) and those that plan poorly (most), I have observed common practices for good planning by focusing tactical efforts on strategic goals. Even in the absence of quality business planning, the following practices help IT improve its impact on the organization.

  • Clearly define IT's long-range mission and requirements. Over the next three years, we need to support a more dynamic and adaptable business. Ideally, we base what we do in IT on the mission and requirements of the business. At a minimum, we should validate our agenda with the business before we get too deep into subsequent planning activities and decisions.

  • Translate this long-range mission into specific, action-oriented long-term goals. I use the SWOT technique -- in which we assess our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats -- to link mission to goals. We ask ourselves, "What specific things must we do to maintain our strengths, improve our weaknesses, exploit our opportunities and minimize our threats?" The prioritized answers to these questions become our long-term goals. If our mission, for example, is to improve business adaptability, a weakness might be the complexity of our current systems. Then we set specific goals to reduce complexity and increase adaptability.

  • Develop short-term, specific, actionable goals. Using the strategic, long-term goals we just defined and the results of SWOT, we can identify and prioritize goals for the next six to 12 months. Short-term objectives should be based on and lead to achieving our long-term goals.

  • Create action plans for each of the short-term goals. Action plans identify what steps are necessary to achieve each goal, when each step should be completed and who is responsible for achieving each step.

  • Define and communicate individual goals. Action plans outline who does what and when. We can now create and clearly communicate individual plans for each owner of an action. To ensure that individual behavior leads to the completion of action plans, I follow the RUMBA -- reasonable, understandable, measurable, believable and achievable -- criteria.

I took this approach with my friend's IT staff. We identified no more than five key long-range business needs that we validated with the business. Then we used SWOT to perform an effective gap analysis that identified and prioritized IT's short- and long-term goals. We then translated these goals into action plans and individual goals.

The result was a highly focused plan for what this IT department will accomplish over the next 12 months. The IT people were happy because they had a validated plan they could use to make sense of their day-to-day smoke jumping. The business leadership was ecstatic because IT focused on a few critical objectives. My friend was happy because he was behaving like a true business leader. And I was happy because I guaranteed myself a lifetime supply of mulligans. In all, a true win-win-win-win situation.

Niel Nickolaisen is CIO and vice president of strategic planning at Headwaters Inc. in South Jordan, Utah. To comment on this story, email [email protected].

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