Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Anchor or Wings?

Is your strategic plan an anchor or a set of wings?  This is a very important question for CIOs to consider if they are trying to be nimble, agile, and responsive to organizational change.

An anchor drags you down, locks you in place, and keeps you from drifting away.  This may be a good thing if your IT team feels overrun by requests, coming from all directions.  After all, our organizations cannot be all things to all people at a moment's notice.  A strategic plan that has broad organizational support can sift out the high priority projects.  A strategic plan provides focus.

But strategic plans are often another dot on a trend line of known items. If you created a five year IT strategic plan in 2009 and are just finishing that plan, your original plan probably did not address the impact of:
  • iPads, introduced in April, 2010
  • Server virtualization (major players introduced products in 2009-2010)
  • Educational model changes like flipped classrooms and MOOCs
That kind of long term planning had its place in the past, but it does not work in today's high speed change environment.  Our educational environments, and specifically our supporting IT organizations, are not in a position to reject game-changers like iPads or flipped classrooms.  Instead, we need to embrace change.

Black swan events, those unpredictable events that change our world, happen. If you hold firm to the multi-year strategic plan in order to control demands on your organization and provide resource alignment, you can become out of touch with technology directions, and miss opportunities to be nimble.
In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb describes black swan events as having three principal characteristics:
  1. The events are truly unpredictable.
  1. Massive impact occurs from these events.
  1. In hindsight, we use trends, narratives, and history to make the randomness of events appear more predictable.
Taleb describes the "triplet of opacity" (p. 8):
  • "the illusion of understanding, or how everyone thinks he knows what is going on in a world that is more complicated (or random) than they realize;
  • the retrospective distortion, or how we can assess matters only after the fact....;
  • the overvaluation of factual information and the handicap of authoritative and learned people..."
We may get pulled into thinking that if we truly follow and better track the trends, and we plan more effectively, our IT organizations can feel less yanked around, less like a flag blowing in a strong wind. We can become enamored and protective of the plan, and closed to the idea of making changes along the way.

But perhaps instead, we should embrace that strong change wind and stop seeking an anchor.  Sailors constantly adjust their sails to changing wind directions and conditions.  Or let's think about the balance of forces needed for flight:  drag, gravity, thrust, and lift.  We just cannot be nimble if we only think about drag and gravity with our strategic plans.  We need to build in the balancing forces of thrust and lift.  We need to make sure that using a strategic plan as a project gate-keeper does not stop us from embracing exciting change.  In a recent NYT article Management Be Nimble, Adam Bryant identified six organizational drivers that are commonly described in cultures emphasizing innovation.  The first item was to create a "simple plan":  "One of a leader’s most important roles is to boil down an organization’s many priorities and strategies into a simple plan, so that employees can remember it, internalize it and act on it. With clear goals and metrics, everyone can pull in the same direction, knowing how their work contributes to those goals."  

Perhaps, then, it is our ability to lead through synthesizing ideas and breaking down complex plans. Those actions give us the thrust and lift needed to be nimble.  We need to be willing to change plans and directions, and do so quickly.  On our campus, we are experimenting with an evergreen three-year technology plan.  We will always be in year one of a three year plan; we will have the flexibility each year to visit our issues.  We see this working more like New Media Consortium's Horizon Report.  We will have to work to build ongoing technology connectedness, making sure projects come to completion, but we need to make sure we balance with action and lift - those things that provide a quick change in direction.