by Jeff Scott, Forrester Research

How to Craft Actionable Business Strategy from the Bottom Up

Apr 21, 2011
IT LeadershipIT Strategy

While most business architects might prefer a top-down approach to strategy development, this doesn't often happen. Follow these three steps to crafting better strategy, Forrester Research's Jeff Scott advises.

In theory, enterprise strategies are developed by senior executives and filtered down to create aligned action throughout the organization. But in reality this process is often quite different—in most organizations executives establish high-level goals and leave the details to individual business units. These goals continue to be pushed down the chain of command to staff who address these goals from their narrower point of view, which can often cause gaps and conflicts. Ultimately, these gaps form the next set of strategic needs—what action the company must take in order to successfully achieve overarching goals.

While most business architects might prefer a top-down approach to strategy development, guided by executives, in many cases this just isn’t possible. In fact, many BAs have discovered that they can better align IT’s business and technical capabilities with larger company goals by identifying specific strategic needs and organizing these into themes. To help guide this process, there are a few key steps to follow:

Task 1: Facilitate Focus-Group Sessions That Uncover Unmet Needs. Because high-level managers often lack the detailed working knowledge needed to develop next-step strategies, non-executive focus groups can be effective in identifying the organizations concerns and needs at a detailed level. These groups work best with six to twelve people, so they are small enough to be controlled, and large enough to generate ideas. To create a productive focus groups make sure to find the right participants, and hold meetings in an environment conducive to brainstorming. Pointed questions should be asked, not about strategy but about specific issues and challenges.

Task 2: Analyze The Data To Identify Themes. Look for the output of the focus group sessions to be 150 to 200 individual strategic needs statements. These ideas should be grouped based on repeated ideas, and the remaining statements should be sorted for items that can be directly connected to larger themes. Shoot for fewer, targeted themes rather than a long, undifferentiated list.

Task 3: Translate Themes Into Defined Strategic Imperatives. Once five to fifteen themes have been identified, each one should be given a title and description without using technical terms. The goal here is to translate the list of strategic needs into business imperatives that describe what the business needs to do to reach a solution. After validating themes with the focus group participants and incorporating feedback, executives can be briefed in one-on-one meetings. They should be provided with a one-page summary of the process and a list of participants as well as an explanation of the identified business imperatives. Key questions to get answered include: “Does this make sense?” “Do you agree?” and “Is it actionable?”

Once business imperatives are identified, the same three tasks can be used to identify the capabilities IT needs to develop in order to support the business, and to better understand the team’s role in the organization.

Traditional approaches are not always best. Because business architecture is still in its infancy and there is little proven methodology or concrete best practices to follow, creativity and innovation must come into play. Although building strategy from the ground up may lack the appeal of working with C-level executives, it can be very effective in both creating strategy, and developing interest in the strategy process. Once business executives see effective strategic planning taking place, they will be more likely to get involved.

Jeff Scott is Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, serving enterprise architecture professionals. He will be presenting at Forrester’s IT Forum, May 25-27 in Las Vegas.