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Successful Transformations Require Clarity in Strategy and Execution

Heman Smithby Heman Smith

blog_graphic_CIO_clarityThe recent “The State of IT Transformation” report by VMware and EMC is an up-to-the-minute overview of how companies across multiple industries are faring in their efforts to transform their IT organizations.

The report offers valuable insights into the pace and success of IT transformation over the last few years and outlines where companies feel they have the most to do. But two specific data points in the report – highlighting gaps between companies’ ambitions and their actual achievements – struck me in particular. Here they are:

  • 90% of companies surveyed felt it important to have a documented IT transformation strategy and road map, with executive and line of business support. Yet over 55% have nothing documented.
  • 95% of the same organizations thought it critical that an IT organization has no silos and works together to deliver business focused services at the lowest cost. And yet less than 4% percent of organizations report that they currently operate like this.

Both of these are very revealing, I think, and worth digging into a little deeper.

Taking the second point first, my immediate reaction here is: Could IT actually operate with no silos? Is that ever achievable?

To answer, you have to define what “silo” means. A silo can be a technology assignment (storage, networking, compute, etc..) and that’s usually what’s meant within IT by the word.  Sometimes, though, it represents a team assignment, whether by expertise or a focus on delivering a particular service, that is in its own way a type of silo.

So when companies say they wish they could operate with no silos and be able to work together, I wonder if that’s really an expression of frustration with poor collaboration and poor execution? My guess is that what they’re really saying is: “we don’t know how to get our teams, our people, to collaborate effectively and execute well.”

If I’m right, what can they do about it? How can companies improve IT team collaboration, coordination, and execution?

Being clear about clarity

The answer takes us back to the first data point, that 90% of companies feel it’s important to have a documented IT transformation strategy and road map with executive and line of business support, yet over 55% have nothing documented. A majority of companies, in other words, lack strategic clarity.

Without strategic clarity, it’s very difficult for teams to operate and execute toward an outcome that is intentional and desired. Instead they focus on the daily whirlwind that surrounds them, doing whatever the squeakiest wheels dictate. I’m reminded of what Ann Latham, president of Uncommon Clarity, has said: “Over 90% of all conflict comes from a lack of clarity.”

Clarity, in my experience, has three different layers.

Clarity of intent.

This is what you want to accomplish (the vision); why you want to do it (the purpose); and when you want it done (the end point). You can also frame this as, “We want to go from X (capability) to Y (capability) by Z (date).”

Clarity of delivery.

As you move towards realizing your vision, you learn a lot more about your situation, which brings additional clarity.

Clarity of retrospect.

We joke about 20/20 hindsight, but it’s valuable because it lets us compare our original intentions with outcomes and learn from what happened in between.

Strategic clarity is really about that first layer. If companies are not clear upfront about what they want, it’s almost impossible for their teams and employees to understand what’s wanted from them and how they can do it – or to track their progress or review it once a project is complete. Announce a change without making it clear how team members can help make it a reality and you invite fear and inertia. While waiting for clarity, people disengage and everything slows down.

I’ve seen, for example, companies say they’re going to “implement a private cloud.”  That’s an aspirational statement of desire, but not one of clear intent. A clear statement of intent would be: “We’re going to use private cloud technologies to shift our current virtual environment deployment pace of 4+ weeks into production to less than 24 hours by the end of June 2016.” Frame it like, and any person on the team can figure out how they can or cannot contribute toward that exact, clear goal. More importantly, the odds of them collectively achieving the outcome described by the goal are massively increased.

I suspect that the overwhelming majority of companies reporting that they’d like a strategic IT transformation document and road map but don’t yet have one, have for the most part failed to decide what exact capabilities they want, and by when.

This isn’t new. For the last 30 plus years, IT has traditionally focused on technologies themselves rather than the outcomes that those technologies can enable. Too many IT cultures do technology first and then “operationalize it.” But that’s fundamentally flawed and backwards, especially in today’s services-led environment.

Operating models and execution

Delivering on your strategic intent requires more than clarity in how you describe it, of course. Your operating model must also be as simple and as focused as possible on delivering the specific outcomes and capabilities outlined in your plan. Otherwise, you are placing people inside the model without knowing how they can deliver the outcomes it expects, because they don’t know what they’re trying to do.

Implementing an effective operating model means articulating the results you are looking for (drawn from your strategy), then designing a model that lets employees do that as directly and rapidly as possible. That’s true no matter what you’re building – an in-house private cloud, something from outside, or a hybrid. Everyone needs to know how they can make decisions – and make them quickly – in order to deliver the results that are needed.

That brings me to the my last observation. When companies have no documented strategy or road map (and remember that’s 55% of companies surveyed in the VMware/EMC report), they are setting themselves up for what I call “execution friction.” With no clear strategy, companies focus on technology first and “operationalize” later. They end up in the weeds of less-than-successful technology projects, and spend energy and resources on upgrading capacity, improving details, and basic IT pools, while failing to craft a technology model that supports delivering the capabilities written in their strategic model. It’s effort that uses up power while slowing you down instead of pushing you forward: execution friction. Again, it’s viewing IT as a purchase, when today more than ever it should be viewed as a strategic lever to accelerate a company’s ability to deliver.

In his book on strategic execution, Ram Charan says that to understand execution, you need to keep three key points in mind:

  • Execution is a discipline, and integral to strategy
  • Execution is the major job of the business (and IT) leader
  • Execution must be a core element of an organization’s culture

Charan’s observations underline what jumps out at me in the data reported by the VMware/EMC study: that you can’t execute effectively without strategic clarity.

Wise IT leaders, then, will make and take the time necessary to get strategically clear on their intended capability outcomes as soon as possible, then document that strategy, share it, and work from it with their teams in order to achieve excellent execution. If more companies do that, we’ll see silos disappearing in a meaningful way, too, because more will be executing on their strategy with success.

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Heman Smith is a Strategist with VMware Accelerate Advisory Services and is based in Utah.