Aligning To The Emergent Strategy

Gene Leganza [Posted by Gene Leganza]

CIOs’ business-IT alignment efforts and enterprise architects’ attempts to focus their architecture on business needs have one thing in common: they assume that good planning information is available from “the business side.” The problem is, the business folks don’t tend to plan too far ahead. And, when they can tell us about their goals and objectives, they don’t usually describe them in sufficient detail to allow us to cook up specific IT initiatives to move them forward.


If EA folks are successful in launching business architecture programs, it would appear that this problem could eventually go away forever (see the Forrester report, "Business Architecture's Time Has Come"). Imagine a fully baked process where creating, vetting, and maintaining visions of target state business architectures are regularly occurring activities. Then aligning application, information, and technical architectures completes the loop, and there’s plenty of information to feed into innovation incubators, too. The IT organization and the architecture become aligned and the IT strategic plan practically writes itself.


But until everyone gets up to speed on business architecture, many IT shops are still stuck figuring out just what to align to. And actually, speaking of business architecture, there is a fly in the ointment regarding the apparent nirvana that business architecture represents. Fortunately, the problem of alignment in lieu of business strategy and dealing with business architecture’s metaphorical fly have the same solution: IT must identify the “emergent strategy.”


What’s emergent strategy? I’ll explain this by backing up to define that problem with business architecture: most organizations don’t follow deliberate and static top-down strategies – not even when they have taken the pains to create them. Perhaps, as organizations learn to build business architectures they will corral the appropriate experts and invest the kind of thoughtful effort needed to define really effective future state architectures, and then they’ll be motivated to adhere to those visions. But most organizations follow a pattern described by Henry Mintzberg, a professor at McGill University and internationally renowned author on business strategy. Mintzberg states that strategy more often emerges as a cumulative pattern of actions that is only retrospectively rationalized and organized as a plan. He advocates studying this, stating that it is better to “…respond to an evolving reality rather than having to focus on a stable fantasy.” His many books describe numerous compelling examples.


Mintzberg’s body of work was brought to my attention by a presentation at Forrester’s EA Forum EMEA in London last month, where Jon Hill of BNP Paribas presented his approach to creating an “emergent architecture” in the alfabet Guest Executive Session. Hill laid out an approach for unearthing the emergent strategy and reconciling it with the clearly articulated top-down strategy. What struck me about this presentation was that this very interesting formal body of work on emergent strategies describes something we at Forrester have observed time and time again working with clients, and Hill’s solution paralleled our approach to dealing with it. We’ve thought of these short-term decisions as tactical responses to problems in lieu of a strategy, perhaps at best called a de facto strategy. In Mintzberg’s work, this is the strategy – full stop. Learn to deal with it.


How to deal with it brings us back to the alignment problem. The solution to alignment in a business strategy vacuum – or in this parlance, aligning to the emergent strategy – is also the solution to the problem of going to all the trouble of creating a future state business architecture and the strategy to build it only to find organizations don’t follow deliberate top-down strategies all that well. The solution is to go out and interview all the decision-makers who are making all the short-term decisions that will look two years from now like the strategy of 2009. Yes, all of them. Get out there and ask: “What are your current plans for delivery between now and year end?” And ask “We know it won’t be perfect, but give us your best guess as to the major deliverables and projects that you’ll be doing next year?” And “Looking into the crystal ball, what do you think will be important further out – 2 to 3 years? Give us something with a 50-70% confidence level.” Analyze the answers to these questions and group similar types of initiatives into themes, connect them to capabilities, functions, and systems, and you’ve defined your emergent strategy. If you do have a top-down vision, you can now reconcile one with the other and make adjustments (to the static vision or to the decision-makers’ plans). Next year, do it again.


No shortcuts here, no silver bullet (see the Forrester report, "Choose From Five Basic Approaches To Business Architecture Based On Your Context And Goals"). The solution to the information gap in today’s business-IT alignment efforts, and to the future problem we’ll see when the relevance of the newly created future state business architecture is challenged, is to make the major effort to pull information from all the decision-makers who are creating the emergent strategy as we speak. A good time to do this is now, as you’re beginning to build your business architecture capabilities. As you develop your own capabilities to analyze business strategies and to apply technological innovation to help achieve business goals, you’ll be training the business side to plan more effectively and to begin to think about reconciling day-to-day decisions with the vision for where they want to be in the future. You’ll be teaching the business how to do what Forrester calls “street-level strategy.”

If this is a topic you're struggling with, be sure to check out the Enterprise Architecture and CIO track sessions at our upcoming IT Forum in Las Vegas.
















re: Aligning To The Emergent Strategy

Definitely a fan of emergent strategy. It's a challenge to record and communicate what's known about strategy. If done well so that the right people develop deeper understanding, better strategy emerges more quickly.

re: Aligning To The Emergent Strategy

Gene, I think you are on the right track here, and +1 for bringing Mintzberg into the discussion. I like the ending vision of "street level strategy". That said, I think your core recommendation is fatally flawed:"The solution is to go out and interview all the decision-makers who are making all the short-term decisions that will look two years from now like the strategy of 2009. Yes, all of them."Two reasons I disagree with this advice:1. It's not practically achievable in most cases2. It doesn't accomodate for ontological uncertainty so often in play - whether top down, bottom up, or middle out - it doesn't matter if the business environment is changing faster than strategies can play out.(For more on this, check out my post on Ontological Uncertainty here: )Instead, I suggest that for large organizations that have a business-IT liaison role and also an EA group, these be collapsed into one organization. The people who are responsible for understanding business issues and strategies as they emerge, and also helping find innovative ways to apply technology to make the business better, should be the people who drive Enterprise Architecture.People who understand both business and technology well enough to flourish in this role are rare, but they exist. In too many organizations the EA group, even when there is a Business Architecture movement, is isolated from the business within an Application Development or Infrastructure organization, and may only interact with the IT-Business liaison people for project and architecture reviews. That doesn't work well because changes in direction, whether to avoid a cost or capture an opportunity, are often disruptive at that point. Projects may be in flight, egos are on the line, business unit and executive expectations already set, etc.Enterprise Architecture, and business architecture in particular are very valuable capabilities - they need to be "pushed out to the organizational edges" where they can best make a postive impact. This optimizes for flexibility and agility to support emerging business strategies in "real time".My 2 cents. Appreciate your thoughts.