Executing strategies: Close the gap between vision and implementation

That vision thing won't do CIOs much good if they fail to execute on strategy, management experts say. Here's how to overcome the hurdles that can get in the way of success.

CIOs in recent years have focused on delivering strategic value to the business and having the so-called seat at the table, where they can help shape their organization's vision for its future. A prerequisite for this role is being flawless on IT operations. 

But to be effective leaders at that table, top CIOs also know they must be masters at executing strategies. 

Indeed, CIOs pegged execution of strategy as a critical capability, according to the 2016-2017 global CIO survey from Deloitte. It bested innovation, disruption, talent and culture as critical elements for success. 

The survey of 1,217 CIOs found that executing on strategy was in the top three essential traits necessary for career success, second only to aligning IT to business strategy and performance goals, and nearly tied for the No. 2 spot with developing a vision and strategy.

Despite the importance CIOs placed on executing strategies, management experts said many executives, CIOs included, struggle when it comes to turning their strategic visions into reality.

Larry Wolff, president and COO, Ouellette & Associates ConsultingLarry Wolff

"There's a persistent gap between the creation of the strategy and execution of strategy," said Larry Wolff, president and COO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, and an expert on executing strategies.

Management experts offer four high-level steps to help CIOs get the job done.

Build a roadmap -- and stick with it

Organizations often lose sight of their strategic goals, said Chris Curran, a PwC principal and chief technologist for the U.S. firm's advisory practice.

Chris Curran, principal and chief technologist, PwCChris Curran

"Even when they get buy-in, the strategic goals can get put aside when you're doing yearly planning. They get ignored when doing yearly budget and planning, and the more burning projects get attention versus the elements of strategic plans," he said.

Curran said top performers develop multiyear roadmaps with tracks, with each track listing the business objectives to achieve.

"When you build a roadmap, say a three-year roadmap for some transformation, it has projects and investments and everything needed. Those get slotted into the annual plan," he said, adding that a roadmap "gives a reference point to say, 'We're going to invest in these projects that are part of our strategy' so we don't get sidetracked by other projects that are more fleshed out."

He added: "The roadmap is what connects the strategy to the execution."

Build a team with the right interdisciplinary skills

"Some will say, 'This is an IT roadmap or this is a marketing roadmap' and only staff it with those people. That's a recipe for failure," Curran said.

Some will say, 'This is an IT roadmap or this is a marketing roadmap' and only staff it with those people. That's a recipe for failure.
Chris Curranprincipal and chief technologist, PwC

To be successful at executing strategies that change how business gets done, Curran said CIOs need to recruit experts from the various disciplines -- within IT and from the business units -- that are touched by the items on the roadmap.

Moreover, he said, those experts have to work together as an interdisciplinary team, and not just serve as consultants or sponsors who are called upon from time to time.

"You can't have people on the side who get invited to a meeting once a month and call that interdisciplinary. It doesn't work that way. You have to have the right people engaged on the execution of the roadmap from the beginning," he said. "You need to take them off their day-to-day jobs and staff them to the project and then backfill their normal duties."

He explained that these experts help ensure that the team stays focused on the objectives outlined on the roadmap and on using technology to deliver on those objectives.

"It's really about engaging the part of the business you're transforming," he said.

Curran acknowledged that this step requires foresight and perhaps even hiring additional people. He said CIOs will likely need to sell their fellow executives on this step, but he said taking this approach is essential to delivering on strategic plans.

Define the results

Executives dream big, but often their ambitions don't come with specifics, said Shane Cragun, co-founding partner of SweetmanCragun, a global management consulting, training and coaching firm. He said CIOs who want to get better at executing strategies need to delve into the details.

"CIOs need to know exactly what results the organization wants," he said. "You can't execute against something until you know the results you want."

If a company wants a world-class call center, for example, CIOs need to know that the company wants to drive customer loyalty and increase sales. Then CIOs need to define the new behaviors that employees need, along with the processes, structures and systems required, said Cragun, co-author of Reinvention: Accelerating Results in the Age of Disruption.

"The CIO needs to get with their business-side colleagues to articulate these things before they can drive technology decisions," he said.

Communicate IT priorities -- and why they are priorities

IT leaders need to "throw the doors open" and articulate what they're focused on, said Peter High, president of Metis Strategy and author of Implementing World Class IT Strategy: How IT Can Drive Organizational Innovation.

Peter High, president, Metis StrategyPeter High

High and others stressed the need for CIOs to communicate their priorities and how they line up against the organization's strategic vision, so their fellow executives understand why which projects are moving forward and which ones have to take a backseat. "Any given executive thinks 'My top 10 priorities will be IT's top 10,' so IT needs to show what its top priorities look like," High said.

Wolff further explained that such ongoing communication helps the CIO, and ultimately the organization, stay on track with the projects that support the overall business strategy. This allows the entire team to execute on that vision, keeping the strategic projects as priorities and diverting resources only to tactical projects that together they've deemed as important enough to pursue. That way, he said, the organization doesn't get bogged down by tactical requests that might have some value but won't necessarily get the organization to the bigger finish line.

Wolff also stressed the importance of communication, particularly when it comes to getting and keeping IT staff members up to speed on where the organization is going and breaking down the strategic vision into metrics that IT employees know how to achieve.

"It's all about translating your strategy into operational terms," he said. "The goal is to create alignment. I'm not talking about IT alignment with the business, but rather getting everybody rowing the boat in the same direction. If half of them don't know the objectives, then they could be rowing against the rest of the teams."

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