Introduction to IT strategy
Defining a clear strategy and putting it into action is complex work. It requires you to think deeply about where you are headed, how you will spur innovation, and how you will impact business goals.
Strategy is fundamental to success for IT teams. In fact, IT teams often have competing priorities that make strategy all the more important. You are responsible for upgrading and replacing legacy technology as well as delivering new solutions to boost efficiency and productivity. Ultimately, you are responsible for providing a better experience to both internal and external customers.
And yet, IT strategy is often underestimated and misunderstood. In many cases, IT teams feel pressured to hurry ahead to the "how" before determining the "why." But setting an IT strategy is worth the time investment — it expands the scope of IT from a narrow focus on delivery to truly impactful and fulfilling work.
This guide offers an introduction to IT strategy to help you start thinking about building your own. You will learn what makes up a solid IT strategy and how it can enable business growth and transformation.
What is IT strategy?
At a basic level, IT strategy defines what your IT team wants to achieve and the path you will take to get there. Strategy sets the direction for your efforts — keeping everyone focused on the work that matters most. And it is what brings order to long lists of tasks and requests.
But IT strategy is much more than project planning and budgeting — rather, it is an opportunity to frame how your IT team contributes to the overall business. This process involves establishing your vision and mission, forming strategic goals, defining the work you will do to reach those goals, and measuring the impact on the business over time.
What is the purpose of IT strategy?
IT strategy explains the "why" behind what you do and paints the big picture for the team. Each component helps to color in that picture — allowing you to set priorities and connect all of your work back to its larger purpose.
You can also think of it as your north star. A clear IT strategy will guide you towards achieving your goals amid competing priorities. Your IT team should be able to refer to the IT strategy at any time to see why the work you are doing matters.
Beyond that, strategy helps to validate the modern IT team's position as a business asset. IT teams are no longer reactive, but proactive and innovative. You protect the company from security threats. You implement cutting-edge tools. You are the go-to resource for technology questions, problems, and solutions. With strategy as the connecting thread, IT transforms from a supporting role to a meaningful, value-generating part of the business.
Who is responsible for IT strategy?
IT strategy is typically led by the chief information officer (CIO), chief technology officer (CTO), or other senior IT roles that have the best visibility into overall business needs and goals. But IT 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.
Clarity on strategy is important. Even if you are not directly involved in IT strategy development, you should understand how your work helps your department — and entire organization — achieve its goals.
Related: CIO vs. CTO
What should an IT strategy include?
Your IT strategy should encompass your vision, mission, goals, and initiatives. Each element helps to define the "why" behind the work you do as an IT team.
Vision rallies everyone around a shared blueprint for the future. Many organizations have a vision statement at the company level. SaaS companies typically have a product vision as well. Product vision explains what you want your product to be, why it is important, and how it connects to the overarching company vision.
IT teams can establish vision statements too. Just like your product vision, your IT vision should support the company vision and describe the essence of what you want to achieve. For example, your IT vision might be to deliver technology solutions that make people happier and more productive. (You will define what these attributes mean in concrete terms when you define your goals and initiatives.)
Your vision and mission go hand-in-hand. When building your IT strategy, you should write a mission statement to describe the approach you will take to reach your vision. IT mission statements should generally answer these questions:
What do we build and support?
Who do we build it for?
How will it benefit our company and/or customers?
Here is an example of an IT team mission statement:
We will help internal customers be happier and more productive by delivering reliable and scalable technology, processes, and support.
Determining your mission is the first step in making your vision a reality. The next step is to translate the vision and mission into specific performance metrics and a plan for the work.
Goals are time-bound, measurable objectives that describe how you plan to make progress towards your vision and mission. Your IT 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?
How will our work support the business?
So 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 by 30 percent within the next six months.
Improve testing coverage for a new product release this quarter by automating 80 percent of tests.
Of course, your goals will be tailored to your IT team structure and your organization's needs.
An example of how to organize strategic IT goals in Aha! Roadmaps.
Once you have defined your goals, you can establish your initiatives — big themes of work that will help you reach those goals. Initiatives tend to be long-term projects that span multiple releases and may involve cross-functional groups within the IT department or beyond.
Example IT 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 work
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.
As you are building your IT strategy, you may also want to consider:
Target audience: Who are your customers and what makes them happy?
Competitors: What innovative solutions do other IT teams offer?
Business model: Does our IT strategy make sense with the way we do business?
Team culture: Will this approach excite and motivate our team?
Taken together, your vision, mission, goals, and initiatives comprise the strategy that informs every project or task your IT team decides to take on. Once you have defined these components, you can plan detailed user stories, features, and requirements — and build an IT roadmap to visualize your plan.
Related guide: IT strategy vs. IT plan
How does IT strategy enable business transformation?
A robust IT strategy supports your team in doing impactful work. When you take it a step further, your IT strategy can also enable broader business transformation.
IT-business alignment is about putting technology in tandem with your organizational strategy. It also means viewing IT as a business unit and not just a support function. By coordinating IT and business goals you can reduce costs, improve agility, and even sharpen a competitive advantage.
Think about everything that relies on IT teams — security, communication, hardware, your technology stack, etc. Improvements across all of these areas of responsibility — even small ones — can have a compounding effect on business agility and your customers' quality of life.
Achieving IT-business alignment is an elaborate process, involving things like roadmapping, reporting on progress, and collecting stakeholder feedback. Your strategy grounds you, helping you connect initiatives and detailed work back to specific business needs.
Whether you are striving for IT-business alignment or looking for a better way to get your IT team motivated about meaningful work, crafting an IT strategy is a great first step. Check out these free IT strategy templates for a head start.
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