Aligning Tech Strategy with Business Goals – Discussion Panel Summary

Jason
May 17, 2024

An important part of each module in our Digital MBA for Technology Leaders is a discussion panel where a group of experienced tech leaders dive deep into critical problems of senior technology management. Here, we are bringing you a summary with key points on the subject of Tech Strategy and its alignment with the company’s business goals.

Is Tech Strategy a Common Weakness in Companies?

It sure seems like there’s often a big misalignment.

There’s a challenge with technology leaders understanding the business strategy and being able to translate that into what their team and their function need to do.

Because of that, we get misdirection. The tech goes on one tangent while the business is on a different one and the alignment is not happening. The tech strategy or product strategy is simply not aligned with the business.

How to solve misalignment?

Technology leaders and other members of the management team need to have compassion for technology and each other and understand all the pros and cons.

In the majority of strategy documents, technology doesn’t deliver on what strategy needs to be.

Strategy is supposed to focus our minds and say, these are the critical few things that we’re going to put all our energies against.

More importantly, these are things we’re not going to do. 

It is rare to see tech strategies that say we are not going to do this or that. As a result, lows of focus bled out doing wild goose chase stuff, which technology is particularly great at.

It’s great at burning time and money on things that will not move the business needle at all.

And the other part is that technology strategy is often something that seems to be communicated upward to the board.

However, there are a lot of Staff Managers, Senior Engineers, Heads of Development and even VPs of Engineering who have no idea what the technology strategy was that was presented to the board last week. 

As a result, alignment is not just happening.

Whose fault is it?  

Is it the fault of the technology leader? 

Well, there are different types of leaders. Some that manage upwards, some that manage downwards and some that don’t manage at all. 

So it depends on the specific context. The general opinion is that the one who pays your wages and who are you most afraid of (ie, who generates your anxiety) is probably going to show where your focus should be. 

Consequently, a lot of leaders just create things.

And it is often too difficult to cross the chasm, like trying to explain it to people who are doing the day-to-day job.

You’re running systems or you’re integrating systems, trying to get the relevance of what’s happening in the board room and that strategy and translate that into something relevant for those people.

It’s time-consuming and hard.

That’s why a lot of people just give up and say, you know what, I’m going to protect my teams from this nonsense and I’m just going to do a document.

It’ll keep the owners happy.

It’ll keep the board happy.

And we’ll just carry on.

The problem is that you’ll find yourself in a pickle sooner or later when a senior leader goes, “Hey, hang on a second. Didn’t you say you were doing all this stuff? I was just talking to somebody in the hallway and this doesn’t seem to be happening.”

Therefore,

A strategy needs to be communicated at multiple levels and be reinterpreted on every level.

There could also be monetary incentives to understand the tech strategy of the company and to figure out how it interacts with some departments.

In other words, to improve the way we communicate tech strategy to individual departments (ie, how it affects them, why it’s important for them), there could be a monetary incentive attached to that, depending on the organisation, the structure or the product.

A lot of things are going to depend on that.

One of the main issues is that Chief Technology Officers and tech leaders in general aren’t being allowed or just aren’t on boards of companies, which is affecting the strategy coming from the top down. Consequently, communication is failing from the bottom up and from the top down.

Here’s an example of this.

An outfit that was a retail bricks and mortar was moving online to e-commerce and it was a sort of bolt home, so to speak. It was one of the larger players in that particular industry.

But there was some serious competition, particularly one company which was founded by people who have technical backgrounds.

The latter put technology front and centre in their strategy and are now the largest in the industry, in the United Kingdom. Just because they use the technology correctly.

It does not matter that some of them were technologists. They simply embraced technology and made it work.

Younger generations aren’t quite as afraid of technology as older ones. That’s the positive side.

The negative side, on the other hand, is that we’re still going down alleys, promising stuff that may or may not deliver anything, particularly things like Blockchain or Metaverse.

We’re chucking all this stuff in and it’s just going to ruin our reputation again.

Because we’re just trying to make sure that technology works and we deliver all the business.

How can emerging tech leaders make a difference?

There is a kind of negative feedback here about what’s going wrong. We’ve got these emerging tech leaders, some of whom are already in senior positions.

So where and how can they make a difference?

How can they change the dynamic of what is going wrong in these various scenarios?

For a starter, make sure your voice is heard while spending time understanding the business.

In other words, don’t do tech for tech’s sake.

It is okay to buy something.

It is okay to knock something up and give it a go.

It doesn’t need to be perfect.

But it needs alignment with what your business is trying to do rather than the latest fad.

If you can then communicate that well in all directions and spend the time communicating it, it’s as simple as that in terms of getting it right.

Some of us tend to over-index on communicating the tech strategy and going over it again and again with teams or peers, believing that we’ve done something wrong. We think that we should’ve been doing something fancy. But it worked and it helped with alignment.

So that’s the area where tech leaders need to spend their time.

How different levels of tech leaders might be able to have an impact?

Not every tech leader is on the Board of Directors.

This article explains four ways technology leaders join Boards.

So the question is, if they’re not on the board or they’re not able to have a direct voice in that strategy meeting, how do they make themselves heard?

In essence, it’s a campaign trail so you probably need a running mate. On top of that, you need to do an awful lot of video conferencing with people to get the point across, making sure everybody understands your tech strategy. 

That way, they feel like they have an input. 

Hence, it’s about the human field.

Strategy is as much about this as it is about numeric. You do need numeric and you do need it short, you need it punchy, you need it simple, but you also need to have that human thing going on.

There are other potential stakeholders — operations especially — where technology is a super leverage point for them.

So the other point is that simplicity is the key.

There are so many strategy decks, which are war garble, just pages of PowerPoint.

Here’s a concrete example. 

There is this company in the holiday sector that owns holiday parks.

There’s a huge amount of increased uptime, reduced cloud costs, and all these typical things that we’d see in their tech strategy, but there’s one thing missing that can bind that business together. And that would be reducing queues.

You see, holidaymakers hate going to holiday parks and standing in line for ages.

This is where this particular company can utilise technology as a key leverage point. 

Unfortunately, that idea is regarded as an operational problem which doesn’t make much sense. Instead, there should be a technical strategy strand that says we are going to reduce queues.

And how are we going to do that?

We’re going to produce booking systems that enable people to schedule the park’s tools and features online while, at the same time, allowing us to check people in and deal with their requests and, thus, reduce failure in, for example, discounts.

So it makes it tangible and real for people.

Now, not every business is fortunate enough to house such a physical context, but if you can get something short and sweet and say, boom, this is in strategy, then it also enables you to say that’s not in strategy.

And that’s the critical thing because your job half the time is to go around saying, “Why are you doing that again?” 

Managing inevitable anxiety

For a lot of people, it brings anxiety when they need to go and speak with their CTO. It makes them nervous. They automatically assume that this is a person who knows everything and we have no idea how to talk about it.

So how in the world are you possibly going to go toe to toe with them when it comes to tech strategy?

The root of that anxiety is simple: you don’t know how to confront your lack of knowledge about a particular situation.

On the other hand, for a lot of tech leaders, it is difficult to communicate to “lower” levels because it sounds condescending.

So how are they supposed to speak on a level that another person is going to understand?

It comes down to the ability to communicate things in a way that anyone can understand.

In other words, keep it simple!

Keep the flow simple and explain things in an easy-to-understand way. Two or three sentences at a fifth-grade level.

That way, non-technical stakeholders can understand what you’re doing and what your strategy is.

For example, if you’re in operations and you want to optimise a flow when an order comes in from your Shopify store, there is no reason your tech leader should be the one setting it up on Zapier when you can do it yourself.

When you have these different flows that you can work with, why shouldn’t you be trying to figure them out yourself, subsequently improving yourself and your career?

Dealing with the sense of loneliness

Being in a top leadership position often feels like you are alone. Hence, you need people to help you get forward. But to get them on the same path, you must give them the needed confidence.   

The more confidence technology leaders have in what they’re doing, the easier it becomes.

You see, part of the problem of any communication is not necessarily knowing what the other side is thinking or what you think they’re the experts in. Often, they’re not the experts at all. After all, everyone rises to the level of their incompetence.

The first thing is to understand the business.

The next thing is to understand does anything else has to do with the strategy, whether it’s a tech strategy, marketing strategy or sales strategy.

If it doesn’t, there are some communication issues. In that case, you simply stand up and start talking about that. 

In other words, you get that confidence through exposure and practice. 

This applies to all levels of technology leaders.

Our role, wherever we are, is supporting those people and bringing them along with us.

Even if you’re not a CTO, but you have teammates reporting to you, bring them along so that everybody understands the tech strategy.

If you bring people in, they generally have better ideas.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re trying to work this damn thing out and somebody comes up with something brilliant. Some technology you’ve never heard of that solves the whole thing straight away. Someone was confident enough to propose such a solution.

The bottom line is that it’s about getting the confidence. You’re on a journey and bringing people with you will drive the technology in the business.

So there are three steps you need to take:

  1. Bring people with you.
  2. Talk to them about it.
  3. Help them understand how it relates to them.

As Kent Beck said in his book about extreme programming, pick all the things that don’t work for you and stop doing them. Take the things that do work for you and turn them up to 100.

That’s how you become effective in communicating the tech strategy.

A word of advice

Sometimes it’s just not worth integrating something in your stack or trying to do something too complicated, just because it seems like fun and should be done because it’s complicated.

So before you engage in something like that, ask yourself this:

Are we wasting time on something that could be simplified?

Because, if it’s simple, it will be much easier to communicate it to a non-technical stakeholder.

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