How To Keep Up With Reality In IT Planning

Uli Kalex from Alfabet, whom many of you know, has provided us with a guest post addressing one key fallacy which underlies much of IT’s work with their business. I hope you enjoy it and feel free to comment.

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As a mathematician and product manager, I strongly prefer the reliability of analysis over the uncertainty of gambling. That is why I like to go to Las Vegas . . . at least for the annual Forrester CIO and EA Forums. Thought and industry leaders from around the world get together and discuss the driving forces and challenges in IT management. As such, I experienced this year’s event as a real catalyst for discussions around the increased requirements and frustrations in IT planning — and a call to arms for IT leaders everywhere.

Dwight D. Eisenhower once famously said: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” He was talking about armed conflicts, but the statement holds a lot of truth for today’s businesses as well. In the business world, an unforeseen change can make even the most sophisticated plan obsolete overnight — be it a change in regulation, a budget cut, or a company acquisition. To survive and thrive in this increasingly complex and dynamic environment, businesses need an IT organization that shows a path to meet business objectives while being flexible and responsive enough to adapt as needed. Ultimately, the best route is always changing.

And still, most IT organizations focus on the plan itself, not on the process of its creation — at the cost of long planning cycles and short shelf life. Additionally, there is rarely a single plan: Based on the overall vision, the organizational division of labor and separation of concerns create piecemeal interpretations with hundreds or even thousands of local plans. And while such a plan’s horizon is mostly local — e.g., mitigating a specific risk or retiring a specific technology — its (unintended) impact on the business can be global — e.g., a business-critical 18-month project might suddenly hit a road block after 12 months.

When it comes to planning, both business and IT can learn from ambitious projects of the past, such as the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s. Earlier that century, some adventurous pioneers had proven that the West offered rich business opportunities, but to fully explore them, people needed an infrastructure to conquer a largely unknown terrain. Back then, it was the railroad — the technology of those days — that provided a steady, adaptive approach to planning and implementing the route. As such, technology played the role of guardrails as its owners coordinated the different resources like people, skills, materials, costs, and risks and turned them into a plan that kept direction, but adapted to circumstances.

Today, it is information technology that has to create the business infrastructure that helps organizations pursue their vision without blindly following a static route. As in the days of transcontinental railroad, IT planning has to be steady and adaptive while coordinating different and sometimes competing resources. In the context of business technology, these resources are demands, capabilities, applications, technologies, risks, projects, and costs, and they are organized in portfolios. Still, many organizations keep these portfolios in silos. But they need to be managed as one that is constantly linked to the business vision and adaptable milestones. Only then IT can act as guardrails in uncertain business terrain.

From what I have heard at Forrester’s CIO and EA Forums, most experts and decision-makers in IT agree on this, but they often struggle to explain to internal stakeholders the value and impact of such an integrated approach.

We would be interested to hear what Forrester readers think about the promises and pitfalls of IT planning.

Uli Kalex is the vice president of product line management at Alfabet A.G.