Did your tech strategy survive the pandemic?

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Many government organizations either rose to the occasion or fell stagnant with the world-wide disruptions brought on by the pandemic. This is an opportunity for tech leaders to rethink their strategic approach to technology, to help their organizations be more resilient and transformative moving forward.

A resilient technology strategy is more important now than ever

In recent months, governments have confronted disruption on a global scale, and it has impacted how agencies have traditionally operated. The need to rapidly enable teleworking capabilities for a virtual workforce, and the subsequent socio-political effects have presented challenges that exposed how quickly even a well thought out business strategy — and corresponding technology strategy — can become irrelevant.

As organizations prepare for the future, how can technology leaders guard against external disruptions that could undermine strategic decisions and investments in technology? To answer that, we need to better understand why technology strategies fail.

Why tech strategies can fail

Technology strategies, like other strategies, are developed through a set of integrated choices about what an agency will (or will not) do, and how they will prioritize the things that they do. The agency’s technology strategy may provide guidance about the hardware, software and capabilities required to realize this goal. When successful, resilient technology strategies also provide a path for an agency to use information systems to effectively respond to shocks in the way the agency does business — such as unexpected changes in the economy, global health crises and mass changes in consumer (or citizen) behavior.  However, technology strategies are not always successful. There are three main reasons why tech strategies generally come up short:

You can’t see the future. Despite strategists’ best efforts, anticipating all potentially disruptive threats — from economic recessions to wars to pandemics — is immensely difficult. Today’s tech strategy may not sufficiently address required capabilities to enable mission continuity in response to the next disruption.  If anything is certain, it’s that the future is uncertain.

Strategies go stale. Once put in place, a tech strategy must be periodically re-evaluated and updated. Although shocks or disruptions such as pandemic, are rare, shifting strategic imperatives, technology trends and emerging business and mission threats can rapidly shift the focus of an organization. Without a plan to intentionally and regularly refresh the strategy, it will quickly become outdated.

Lack of execution. Tech strategies often lack concrete implementation plans and measures of success. Having a plan on how to implement a strategy and assess the progress made is critical to success – without being able to deliver, good strategic thinking is just thinking.

Normally, these factors have a longer-term impact on a tech strategy, such as accumulating technical debt and a constant drag on efficiency and effectiveness.  But if you want to find out about every leak and mechanical issue on a ship, toss it into a storm. A tech strategy, and more importantly the strategy creation process, must be focused on resilience. In other words, a tech strategy should be evaluated on its ability to allow the organization to respond, recover, and thrive in response to change.

Resilience and how to get there

Successful, resilient strategies do not fail because of a lack of creativity. They fail because of a lack of discipline of updating and refreshing their strategy to keep it relevant. A resilient strategy requires having organizational mechanisms to periodically reassess the choices that drive the organization’s tech strategy. As tech leaders prepare for the next normal, they must reimagine a strategic transformation founded on what works and what fails, and how technology can reinforce these tendencies to keep us nimble and adaptable. It is not sufficient to craft a strategy and multi-year plan, without persistent adaptation to examine whether it is still relevant and how it might need to be adapted based on internal changes (i.e. structural, leadership, etc.) or external shifts (i.e. new technology, shifts in mission priorities or emerging global threats).  A resilient tech strategy requires an established framework that provides the discipline and reflection necessary to maintain relevance and capture new value opportunities.

How does persistent adaptation promote technical resilience?

Strategy requires continual adaptation based on external forces and internal shifts that create technological advantages or new opportunities. Resilience isn’t about predicting the future (what disruptions will happen), but about creating a disciplined approach at making strategic choices based on current assumptions that can easily adapt to the future. Technology strategists ask themselves, “How can we build the ability to deal with uncertainty and external forces into our strategy?”

Refinement of your tech strategy during periodic or event-driven reviews involves evaluating current assumptions about what needs to be true to be successful, and then evaluating where to play and how to win. This allows your organization to identify where positioned to drive new areas of mission and purpose, and where you are most vulnerable and need to mitigate risk.

Organizations that take this approach can more easily and quickly innovate current business practices, models and services or pivot in technology investments, skill sets and outdated processes—while identifying the cascading impacts that these new strategic choices will have on the rest of the organization.

What can tech leaders do now?

Tech strategy will always remain a crucial enabler of the enterprise’s business strategy and source of value creation, given proper care and feeding.

  1. Refresh your tech strategy: Re-validate the key questions that drive an integrated and iterative approach to ensure alignment with the organization’s mission strategy. In addition, ensure that current trends, emerging strategic imperatives, and potential disruptors are considered.
  2. Have a plan: Don’t just say it, do it. Identify initiatives and building blocks needed to address key gaps between the as-is and to-be architecture, capabilities and systems; prioritize and create a strategic roadmap that is linked to mission outcomes.
  3. Measure twice, cut once: Continuously assess progress against desired strategic outcomes using disciplined governance and portfolio management techniques that indicate measures of success. Then, rinse and repeat.

The pandemic has taught us that a resilient tech strategy is a key factor in the organization’s ability to respond and recover in the face of disruptive events. But the best leaders will help their organizations thrive by refocusing strategy, accelerating transformation, and creating long-term agency success.

Sean Ok is a project manager, Charlie Dutton is a specialist leader, and Joris Vega is a principal at Deloitte Consulting.

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