Introduction to IT strategy

Strategy is fundamental to IT success. Yet it is often underestimated and misunderstood. Defining a strategy and putting it into action is complex work. It requires you to think deeply about where you are headed as an IT department and how you will drive innovation. Perhaps this is why many IT teams hurry ahead to the "how" before determining the "why."

But IT teams have competing priorities that make strategy all the more important. You are responsible for upgrading and replacing legacy technology. For delivering new solutions to improve efficiency and productivity. For enhancing reliability and reusability across platforms. And, ultimately, for providing a better experience to both internal and external customers.

Strategy is how you bring order to the long-running list of imperatives. A clear strategy sets the direction for your team — keeping everyone focused on the work that matters most.

Who is responsible for IT strategy?

IT strategy is typically led by the chief information officer (CIO), vice president (VP) of IT, or other senior IT leaders. These leaders are not the only ones responsible for capturing and implementing the strategy. Everyone on the IT team has a stake — after all, the entire organization uses the systems, software, tools, and data storage that your team provides.

Even if you are not directly involved in strategy development, you should understand how your work helps your department — and entire organization — achieve its goals.

What are the components of an IT strategy?

Strategy paints the big picture for the team. Each component helps strengthen that picture — allowing you to set priorities and connect all the work back to its larger purpose.

Vision

Vision statements are common at the company level — to rally everyone at the organization around a shared blueprint for the future.

IT teams need a vision too. Your vision supports the company vision and describes the essence of what you want to achieve. For example, your IT vision might be to build software that is usable, reliable, and scalable. You will define what these attributes mean in concrete terms when you define your goals and initiatives.

Mission

Your mission statement describes the approach you will take to reach your vision. In general terms, mission statements typically answer these questions: What do we build and support? Who do we build it for? How do we do it? Your vision and mission go hand-in-hand. One example for an IT team is:

We will build software that is usable, reliable, scalable [vision] by offering our customers tools and processes that help them be happier and more productive [mission].

The next step is to translate the vision and mission into specific performance metrics and a plan for the work.

Goals

Goals are time-bound, measurable objectives that describe how you plan to make progress towards your vision and mission. Your goals help you answer the following questions:

  • What specific problems are we trying to solve?

  • Why is solving them important?

  • What is our time frame?

  • How will we measure success?

For example, if your mission states that you want to improve customer happiness and productivity, your goals should align with improvements to the customer experience. For example:

  • Improve IT help desk response time within the next six months. Success metric: 30% faster responses.

  • Improve testing coverage for a new product release this quarter. Success metric: 80% of tests automated.

Of course, your goals will be distinct based on your organization's needs.

Initiatives

Once you have defined your goals, you can establish the key initiatives or big themes of work that you need to accomplish to reach those goals. Initiatives tend to be long-term projects that span releases and may involve cross-functional groups within the IT department or beyond.

Example initiatives might include:

  • Implementing test-driven development

  • Migrating on-premise services to the cloud

  • Re-architecting the delivery pipeline for continuous integration and deployment

  • Implementing new web conferencing tools to improve remote working

Each initiative should tie back to one or more of your goals. This helps ensure that all the detailed work you plan within the initiatives is tied back to strategy too.

Taken together, your vision, mission, goals, and initiatives build the strategy that informs every decision and project your team takes on. Once you have defined these components, you can plan detailed user stories, features, and requirements — and build an IT roadmap that visualizes your plan.

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