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Forrester: 10 mistakes that will sink a strategic plan

A good IT strategic plan addresses real needs that stakeholders can see and understand. Here are 10 things not to do.

How do you know when it's time to dump your strategic plan in the trash?

During a webinar for IT executives yesterday, Alex Cullen, research director at Forrester Research Inc., gave CIOs a tutorial for putting together a strategic plan that produces results. David Letterman, it ain't, but here are Cullen's top 10 mistakes IT people make when developing a plan.

1. The plan does not define decisions that inform the strategy.

"A good strategic plan defines decisions and connects decisions with the factors that will make them successful," Cullen said. For example, if the strategic plan is about making new technology investments, a good plan will spell out the right staffing for that technology decision, the right processes for the technology and other factors crucial to carrying out the plan, Cullen said. Lacking this guidance, the plan becomes just a document -- not a blueprint for action.

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2. The plan is written inside out.

The inside-out plan provides a smidgen of business context, then quickly devolves into a list of IT initiatives. Said Cullen: "When CIOs present these plans to their peer business execs ... the response is somewhere between, 'Nice IT plan -- I don't see anything in it for me,' to 'IT is out of touch.' A good plan helps reinforce IT's value. A bad plan undermines it."

3. The plan doesn't link business needs, IT initiatives and metrics.

Another variation on IT myopia. IT may see the link between its plan and the business, but no one else does. And, because IT initiatives are not linked to metrics, neither IT nor the business knows if the plan is on track or producing the intended results. Cullen says this mistake is an "easy one to solve" but often overlooked because the IT folks are so focused on their initiatives.

4. It's too focused on the business, not enough on IT.

Putting the cart before the horse. Cullen gave an example of a CIO client whose IT operations were subpar: not enough staff, not enough investment in basic infrastructure, weak governance, etc. "But you would never know this from the strategic plan they brought to us," Cullen said. The plan was chock full of new applications and major business projects. In talking with the client, it was clear that the business was frustrated by IT's performance. "They were the gang that couldn't deliver."

The CIO was advised to build IT credibility by acknowledging the business's perception of IT and concentrating on the basics, like capacity and demand management. "The strategic plan was reshaped so it focused less on the business and more on the IT organization's ability to support the business," Cullen said.

5. The plan skips over strategic principles.

Cullen said Forrester takes strategic principles very seriously. "We don't them as statements of motherhood -- 'IT is a business asset,'" he said. Principles reflect decisions about how IT will operate and deliver.

Cullen said, "They have statements in there like, 'We will use service-oriented architecture for business solution delivery and development,' or 'For non-core services we will utilize a buy rather than build philosophy.'" Strategic principles set a course of action, so when the strategy is tweaked or new decisions come up, you have framework for making those decisions.

6. The plan does not build on IT governance.

Governance -- the steering committees, the project portfolio management office -- shapes IT decisions. But Forrester often sees strategic plans that make no mention of governance, Cullen said. The result is that business users become frustrated when things don't go their way: If their project is in the strategic plan, then why is it on hold because of some current demand? Conversely, a business user decides the IT strategic plan is just a big old barrier to his or her pressing need. Good plans connect the dots between strategic initiatives and the IT governance processes.

7. It's too damn long.

A Forrester client wrote a 237-page strategic plan and then wondered why readers were overwhelmed. "This plan covered everything. But because it covered everything about the IT organization, it was not a strategic plan but an encyclopedia article." Focus on business needs and how IT will support them, and what is going to change as a result.

A good plan helps reinforce IT's value.
A bad plan undermines it.

Alex Cullen
research directorForrester Research Inc.
8. It's a laundry list.

This plan is just a mindless list of initiatives that range all over the map, "from major investments into CRM to upgrades of your databases," Cullen said. The rationale for doing these things must take center stage.

9. It's like a message in a bottle.

Strategic plans with no follow-through are akin to putting a message in a bottle and hoping it washes up somewhere, Cullen said. The plan needs a defined mechanism for reviewing progress against goals and regularly asking the tough questions, including whether the goals are still the right ones for your company. Plus, you'll never be able to build on your strategic plan if you don't know where you ended up.

10. It's an inside job.

The plan looks like it's been developed by a handful of people in enterprise architecture, Cullen said. It's not clear who was on the steering committee, or whether the right people were involved. "It feels very much like a side project within IT."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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