CTO dilemma: Tech Strategy without a clear Business Strategy
I’ve often been in conversations that ultimately end up with a variation on the theme “You cannot define a tech strategy when you’re lacking a clear business strategy”.
I learnt to disagree with that statement.
Now, before we get into the meat of the topic, let me clarify one thing: Ideally every respectful business should have a clear strategy. And ideally that will be defined, socialised and executed upon even before someone, usually the CTO, even starts the work of putting together a technology strategy.
The truth is that I’ve yet to work in an ideal setup. There is always something missing, and sometime what’s missing is a clear and actionable business strategy.
Sometimes the strategy is defined, but only on paper and not really followed in the daily process of decisions and prioritisation. This tends to happen quite often in big corporate environments where the strategy process is some soft of esoteric process that produces one or more document strictly confidential and only to be fully read by the executive team and the board.
Sometimes the strategy is just not actionable and doesn’t really drive alignment across the organisation, nor it helps deciding what to focus on and what to ignore. Something like “Our strategy is to be like a leaf in the wind” would fall in such category. Hopefully no one will ever come up with something like that, but you never know.
Sometimes the business strategy simply doesn’t exist. Early stage companies that are fighting to survive can be so busy doing stuff to the point that they lack the time to stand back, reflect and clarify what is the destination, the trajectory and the key places to visit along the way.
In all of these cases, it would be tempting as a CTO or otherwise senior technology leader to play the “missing business strategy” excuse card. There is a full deck of such cards, but this one is particularly nasty.
At first sight it might seem a very reasonable one: how the hell am I supposed to define what the technology team should focus on when there’s no clear guidance from the business? Right? Wrong!
There are many reasons why — as a technology leader — you should always ensure there is a clear tech strategy to guide your teams in the upcoming months and years:
- First of all, if your teams don’t know where they’re supposed to go and what they’re supposed to focus on you will end up with chaos (best case scenario) or simply losing your job because ultimately that’s your responsibility (worst case scenario)
- As a senior leader or an executive you need to practice strategic thinking. This exercise is one of the best way to train yourself and hone your skills in this area.
- A good tech strategy has always components that are business agnostic: you don’t need to know exactly where the business is going to focus on DevOps practices, Test Automation, Clean Architecture, Build vs Buy considerations, convergence (or lack of) on programming languages and frameworks are all good examples
- Working on a tech strategy will force you to ask questions around you to multiple representatives of the overall business. You will be surprised by the amount of useful information about the “unwritten” strategy that is actually governing day to day operations you’ll uncover. This will increase your awareness on what the business is really trying to achieve, even when it’s not formally called a strategy
- And finally, the most underrated benefit. In many cases, the discussions and conversations that are initiated through this work will often lead to the executive team gaining better insights about the need for a clear business strategy, and the possibilities that technology can bring to the business. This will often lead to starting a more formal process to define the overall business strategy, and you’ll have a first row seat at that conversation.
So, next time you or someone you know are tempted to use the “missing business strategy” excuse card, think about all the benefits that you’re losing on the table. You might end up rolling up your sleeves and starting to work on it instead!