Aligning IT project and business strategies: why you should and how you can

Everything that your business does should be aligned with your business strategy. Here’s why.

project-planning meeting and materials
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My friend’s business is delivering financial services, and he ensures that all his staff are suitably trained to provide the best advice; another friend’s business is carrying bus passengers, his drivers know the local roads, what time their buses are due to arrive and how much the fares cost. This week I’ve been looking at holidays and hope that the firms I’m dealing with have brokered great relationships with hotels and airlines.

In each case here, the financial advisors, the buses and their drivers, the facilitators of dream holidays are the means by which their respective firms go about achieving their business goals. Everything that they do therefore is geared towards those goals.

Each of these also all relies heavily upon IT for delivery of their core business services, so presumably, IT strategies are similarly aligned, you’d think!

This sounds so obvious AND YET one of the most common reasons for IT projects' failures is a lack of business case alignment.

Why? I guess because traditionally, IT’s role in an organization was a supportive or administrative one, not strategic at all! However, the increasing complexity of IT projects, greater dependence on IT for delivery of business goals and the constantly changing IT environment means IT now has a much more strategic part to play. Unfortunately, in some firms, perception hasn’t caught up with this reality.

Where it has caught up, where the two strategies are aligned, companies are enjoying much greater business results from their IT investment.

So how do you achieve alignment of IT and business strategy?

You can get independent advice; your trusted IT or project management services partner can usually deliver gap analysis around business case and a fresh pair of eyes can often see easy wins in this regard. Alternatively, here are six thought starters to consider.

1. Early engagement

To align IT project and business strategy, leaders from your project management office (PMO) or enterprise project management office (EMPO) must be involved at the strategic planning stage. It’s common sense, the work of project teams must be aligned with the direction of travel of the business, if strategy is to be delivered through IT initiatives, project leaders must be present when those plans are conceived. One of the greatest causes of a lack of strategic alignment is that senior-level managers are agreeing plans and THEN calling in the IT talent to implement them.

Early engagement of your IT talent leads to a natural evolution where business and IT strategy are able to grow together, each shaping the other.

2. Don’t get lost in translation

In businesses where early engagement of IT leaders doesn’t happen, many times the problem comes when a business strategy is translated into a tech strategy. Last year I consulted on a project where the C-suite decision makers had handed what they thought was a clear business change brief over to their IT team. Unfortunately, in mapping out potential technology challenges and working out technology and business dependencies, the essence of what the project was meant to achieve got lost.

The senior managers at the company thought in very different ways to the IT guys. As the CEO put it to me, the former “had a vision, a destination and a reason for the journey whereas the IT team were more pragmatic, they also knew where we had to go but hadn’t bought into why.”

The best way for IT teams to make sure that they are getting it right is to constantly ask questions. I have one PM colleague who insists upon a weekly catch up with project sponsors to make sure that what he is delivering is in line with business needs.

3. Embrace interdependence

The most aligned IT and business strategies are totally interdependent. I touched upon this before but the businesses that enjoy the greatest success aligning the two are those companies that encourage each to feed the other.

A great example I heard a couple of years back where a media content business planned to launch a smartphone app to keep up with their competitors. One of the IT project leaders was a user of a rival provider and she suggested a number of improvements but also several new business ideas based on her own experience of “what would be nice as a customer” of that rival. In other words, great business ideas should flow from the IT experts to the C-suite just as they flow the other way

I once heard it described like this by a brilliant CIO, her philosophy was that the business strategy should be full colour, shiny and inspiring and the IT strategy should be black and white, detail focussed and pragmatic. Success, she says, lies in bridging the two, the colour and the numbers, so that they become totally interdependent. There is no reason why the IT talent shouldn’t also think in colour, in fact, they should be encouraged to.

4. Governance

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I am BIG into governance. IT Project governance can often be the greatest influencer of success, and so it is with business case alignment. Many EPMOs and businesses start off with good intentions, but business case alignment needs to be monitored and measured regularly. As soon as the two start to take different paths you need to know and adjust accordingly.

5. Flexibility

As part of governance, business alignment needs to be flexible. What is “business case aligned” today may not be in six months from now. If your IT project has a six-month duration and, three months in, this is starting to look likely you have a decision to make.

One of my PM friends tells me of the first IT project he ever worked on. After four months of working long weekends, and late into the night, the firm pulled the plug citing business case as the reason. The project had been the perfect business fit when it was planned but the wider business landscape had changed mid-lifecycle because a competitor had totally disrupted the market. My friend says he was frustrated and angry, but experience has since taught him that it is better to waste four months than six!

6. Be clear on each individual team member’s strategic role

As previously discussed, business strategy is often conceived at c-suite level and then either gets lost in translation or not communicated downwards at all. The most successful strategies are the ones that everyone is bought into and aware of. Engaged personnel are more likely to ensure that everything they do moves the business closer to its strategic goal.

Being clear with every member of your IT project management team about where they fit into that vision and how their work will contribute can deliver massive returns and not just in business terms, but morale and cultural cohesion can also benefit. In contrast, if your team members don’t know their role and how it contributes to company strategy, it stands to reason that your business will find it harder to achieve desired goals.

When business goals are clear, aligning business and IT project management strategy and keeping the two together throughout a project’s lifecycles improves success rates. More than that, the work you do has a purpose and a definite direction of travel. I find everything becomes less of a struggle, disputes are resolved quicker as you have a “blueprint” to refer to, everything seems to fall into place.

In conclusion, everything that your business does should be aligned with your business strategy and given its crucial role in delivering business strategy, that should be especially true of IT. How do you measure up?

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