Effective Governance – Aligning Culture, Strategy and IT to Create Value

Over the last two decades, I have worked with many organizations, led the development of a number of frameworks, methodologies and techniques, written a book and numerous articles, and give more presentations than I care to count on the topic of delivering on the promised value of IT. While I would like to think that I have made a difference, and know that in more than a few cases I have, there is still have a long way to go. Frameworks and methodologies are necessary, but not sufficient to address the challenge of realizing the full value potential of IT-enabled change. Last year, I authored a thought leadership report with the Benefits Management SIG of APM UK entitled Delivering benefits from investments in change: Winning hearts and mindsThe main message of this report is that we need to move beyond the current culture of delivery – build it and they will come, to one of value, and that this will require a new, and more effective approach to governance that promotes and supports such a culture.

A number of articles I have read over the last few days have caused me to further reflect on the relationship between value, culture, strategy and IT, and the role of governance in bringing this all together.

The first of these is a Fast Company article, Culture Eats Strategy For Lunch, in which Shawn Parr contends that culture is “often discounted as a touchy-feely component of business that belongs to HR”, whereas in fact “It’s not intangible or fluffy, it’s not a vibe or the office décor. It’s one of the most important drivers that has to be set or adjusted to push long-term, sustainable success.” Paraphrasing Shawn, it is culture that can install and nurture a feeling of “common purpose”, as described by Joel Kurtzman in his book of the same name, by providing focus, motivation, connection, cohesion and spirit. I came across a somewhat different , but reinforcing view of “common purpose” in a Cutter Consortium blog by Carl PritchardCommander’s Intent and Corporate Guidance. The concept of “commander’s intent” originated in the German military almost 200 years ago, in reaction to disastrous defeats. Defeats resulting from “malicious obedience” by the troops in the field to the tight control exercised from the top (sound familiar?). It’s premise is the, rather than apply such tight command and control, leaders should provide a clear sense of the outcomes they seek and the parameters they will accept – a “common purpose”, then give subordinate leaders freedom and flexibility in planning and execution. It’s a trusting relationship between manager and subordinate and, again, one that has clear application to the broader business environment.

The next article from strategy+business, Seven Value Creation Lessons from Private Equity, reinforces the importance of a culture of value, stating that “Companies are in business to create value for their stakeholders…” and that “A select number of them get it right…”. I would broaden these statements to include all enterprises, be they in the private or public sectors, for profit or not-for-profit (by choice, that is!). Unfortunately, most enterprises don’t do a good job of this. The article suggests that all enterprises could improve their performance by “following seven imperatives from private equity to build a value culture regimen”.  These are:

  1. Focus relentlessly on value.
  2. Remember that cash is king.
  3. Operate as though time is money.
  4. Apply a long-term lens.
  5. Assemble the right team.
  6. Link pay and performance.
  7. Select stretch goals.

While, as the article states, “Private equity firms enjoy a number of natural advantages when it comes to building efficient, high-growth businesses…, the article goes on to say “the best practices of top-tier PE firms still provide powerful and broadly applicable lessons” – my experience would certainly support that view.

Unfortunately, the problem for many enterprises starts with the first imperative above. A fundamental problem here is that in many enterprises there is limited understanding of what constitutes “value” for the enterprise, or how value is created. As Daryl Plummer said, in a recent Financial Times article Don’t go chasing ghosts in the cloud, discussing how to measure the value of the “cloud”, ROI all too often becomes the surrogate for value. Again, while his comments are specific to the “cloud”, they have broader application. ROI is usually totally focused on direct financial impact, while value in fact comes in many different forms. As the French actor and playwright, Molière, said ” Things only have the value that we give them”. We need to take a broader view of value – one where we recognize that value:

  • expresses the concept of worth;
  • is context specific, dynamic and complex;
  • can’t always be measured in financial terms;
  • to one person may not be valuable to another;
  • today may not be valuable tomorrow.

A clear and shared understanding of value is, or should be the foundation for a sense of “common purpose”  – providing the guiding light for why we do things, and how we do them.

My thinking about the next topic, strategy, was triggered by an Executive Street article by Joe Evans, Integrating Business Unit Strategies into a Synchronized Corporate Strategic Plan. Strategies, whose primary objective should be to to create and sustain value, are often poorly defined and even more poorly communicated. One study, described in a 2008 Harvard Business Review articleCan You Say What Your Strategy Is? by David J. Collis and Michael G. Rukstad, found that most executives cannot articulate the basic elements of strategy of their business – objective, scope and advantage – in a simple statement of 35 words or less – and that if they can’t, neither can anyone else. Joe contends that as businesses grow increasingly complex, with multiple, often globally dispersed, divisions and units supporting diverse lines of business, strategic planning models must adapt and change beyond a “command and control, one size fits all” approach if optimal results are to be realized. Linking back to “common purpose”, and “Commander’s intent”, the corporate strategy for a large and diversified business should serve as the umbrella strategy that provides overall structure, goals and measurement – the outcomes they seek and the parameters they will accept. Business units then have the freedom and flexibility to develop and execute their strategic plans under that umbrella, such that their results are consistent with, and contribute to overall corporate strategic goals. This approach leaves the accountability for leveraging intimate knowledge of customers, competitors, employees and culture to the business layer closest to the action – to the “troops in the field”,  allowing the flexibility to plan autonomously while remaining aligned with the overall corporate strategy and goals. One word of caution here – the more complex the business, and the more multidimensional the strategies, the more they may become interdependent –  to avoid falling victim to the “law of unintended consequences”, there must be effective communication and coordination between the business units to ensure that such interdependencies are recognized, and managed.

So, you might well be asking at this stage, where does IT fit in all of this? While I would argue that IT, in and of itself, delivers no value, how we use IT – the change that IT both shapes and enables can create create significant value. With the pervasiveness of IT today, embedded in more and more of what individuals, societies and enterprises do, it is a key element of most business strategies, and investments. Yet, the track record of actually realizing value from those investments is far from stellar, and the IT function, specifically the CIO, is often in the position of having to justify or defend IT’s contribution. While there is certainly still room for improvement in the IT function, they can only be held acceptable for the delivery of IT. The business, the users of the technology, must be ultimately accountable for defining the requirements for, meaningful use of, and value creation from the services that the IT function provides. If they are to deliver on this accountability, business leaders must adopt an effective, value-driven approach to governance that promotes and fosters a culture of value – one which incorporates:

  • A shared understanding what constitutes value for the enterprise, how value is created and sustained, and how different capabilities contribute, or can contribute to creating and sustaining value;
  • Clearly defined roles, responsibilities and accountabilities of the board, executive management, business unit and delivery function management in the realisation of benefits and business value from investments in IT-enabled change;
  • Effective governance processes and practices around value management, including business case development and use, investment evaluation and selection, programme and project execution, asset management, with active benefits and change management; and
  • Relevant metrics integrated into the business which monitor the effectiveness of the approach and encourage continual improvement of the relevant processes and practices.

There are many resources that can help business leadership in adopting such an approach. One such resource, the development of which I led, is the Val IT Framework from ISACA, which is available for free download.

 

The Siren Call of Certainty

In Greek mythology, the sirens were three bird-women who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. The term siren call, from which this derives, is described in the Free Dictionary, as “the enticing appeal of something alluring but potentially dangerous”. In today’s increasingly complex and interconnected world, it is the siren call of certainty that is luring many organizations into failures akin to shipwrecks, particularly, although not limited to their increasingly significant investments in IT-enabled change. More accurately, it is their failing to recognize, accept and manage uncertainty, that leads to these wrecks.

Yet again here, what we have is a failure of governance, and of management – a failure that starts with how strategic decisions are made. In a recent McKinsey paper, How CFOs can keep strategic decisions on track, the authors make the point that “When executives contemplate strategic decisions, they often succumb to the same cognitive biases we all have as human beings, such as overconfidence, the confirmation bias, or excessive risk avoidance.” My discussion here covers the first two (excessive risk avoidance essentially being the opposite of these, and equally dangerous). Executives are often so certain about  (overconfident in) what they want to do that others are unwilling to question their certainty or, if they do, they are dismissed as “naysayers” (and quickly learn not to question again) or the executive only chooses to hear those parts of what they say that confirm their certainty (confirmation bias). I must admit that I have probably been guilty of this myself, in language if, hopefully, not intent, when I have told my teams, “I don’t want to hear why we can’t do this, I want to hear how we can do it.” What I really should have added explicitly was “…and then tell me under what conditions it might not work”.

To resist the lure of the siren call, we require an approach to strategic decision-making  that is open to challenge – one in which multiple lenses are brought to bear on the decision, where uncertainties, and points of view contradictory to those of the person making the final decision, be that the CEO or whoever, are discussed, and where individual biases weigh less in the final decision than facts.

I am not suggesting here that uncertainties should prevent investments being approved, if they did we would never do anything. I am saying that they should not be buried or ignored – they must be surfaced, recognized, mitigated where possible, and then monitored and managed throughout the life-cycle of the investment. This means acknowledging that both the expected outcomes of an investment, and the way those outcomes are realized will likely change during the investment life-cycle. It means managing a changing journey to a changing destination. Unfortunately, once again the siren call of certainty also gets in the way of this.

When investments are approved they are usually executed and managed as projects, all too often seen as technology projects (I use the term broadly here). In a 2010 California Management Review article, “Lost Roots: How Project Management Came to Emphasize Control Over Flexibility and Novelty”, authors Sylvain Lenfle and Christoph Loch, discuss the history of Project Management, and suggest that the current approach to Project Management promises, albeit rarely delivers, greater cost and schedule control, but assumes that uncertainty can be limited at the outset.”

The origins of “modern” project management (PM) can be traced to the Manhattan Project, and the techniques developed during the ballistic missile projects. The article states that “the Manhattan and the first ballistic missile projects…did not even remotely correspond to the ‘standard practice’ associated with PM today…they applied a combination of trial-and-error and parallel trials in order to [deal with uncertainty and unforeseen circumstances] and achieve outcomes considered impossible at the outset”. This approach started to change in the early ’60s when the focus gradually changed from ‘performance at all costs’ to one of optimizing the cost/performance ratio. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but along came Robert McNamara who reorganized the planning process in the Department of Defense (DoD) to consolidate two previously separate processes – planning and budgeting. This integration was supported by the Program Planning and Budgeting System (PBS), which emphasized up-front analysis, planning and control of projects. Again, nothing inherently wrong with that, but the system resulted in an emphasis on the complete definition of the system before its development in order to limit uncertainty, and a strict insistence on a phased “waterfall” approach. The assumptions underlying this approach are i) as decisions taken by top management are not up for discussion, the PM focus is on delivery, and ii) rigorous up-front analysis can eliminate and control uncertainty – these underlying assumptions are still very much part of Project Management “culture” today.

Again, I am not saying here that there is no need for sound analysis up-front – quite the contrary, I believe that we need to do much more comprehensive and rigorous up-front analysis. What I am saying is that, no matter how good the up-front analysis is, things will change as you move forward, and there will be unexpected, and sometime unpredictable surprises. We cannot move blindly ahead to the pre-defined solution, not being open to any questioning of the outcome (destination) or approach (journey), and focusing solely on controlling cost and schedule. The history of large projects is littered with wrecks because, yes, there was inadequate diligence up-front, but equally, or even more so, because we failed to understand and manage uncertainty – forging relentlessly on until at some stage, the project was cancelled, or, more often, success was re-defined and victory declared.

The article suggests that “Project Management has confined itself in an ‘order taker niche’ of carrying out tasks given from above…cutting itself off from strategy making…and innovation”. Many organizations, particularly those embracing agile development approaches, do apply a combination of trial-and-error and parallel trials in order to deal with uncertainty and unforeseen circumstances, and to achieve outcomes either considered impossible at the outset, or different from those initially expected. But, as the authors say, “these actions happen outside the discipline of project management…they apply [these approaches] despite their professional PM training.”

The tragedy here, with both strategic decision making, and execution is that we know how to do much better, and resources exist to help us do so. Strategic decision making can be significantly improved by employing Benefits Mapping techniques to ensure clarity of the desired outcomes, define the full scope of effort to achieve those outcomes, surface assumption, risks and uncertainties around their achievement, and provide a road-map for execution, supporting decision making with an effective business case process, and by applying the discipline of Portfolio Management to both proposed and approved investments. The successful execution of investments in the portfolio can be increased by moving beyond the traditional Project Management approach by taking a Program Management view, incorporating all the delivery projects that are both necessary and sufficient to achieve the desired outcomes in comprehensive programs of change. Many of the elements of such an approach were initially discussed in The Information Paradox, and subsequently codified in the Val IT™ 2.0 Framework.

We know the problem, we have the tools to deal with it – what is still missing is the appetite and commitment to do so.