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Strategy First!
By Peter J. McGarahan, Founder and President, McGarahan & Associates

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.
Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

Sun Tzu (Chinese General and Author, b.500 BC)

A Compass with no magnet

I remember the moment of clarity! The light illuminated over my head. The whole “kit and caboodle” finally made sense. I was disappointed in myself for not seeing it before – it was so clear, so directional, and so strategic. We were missing a connected vision. We didn’t have an aligned service strategy that supported the overall IT strategy. We weren’t asked to participate in the business planning process to develop the IT strategy necessary to support the organizational goals and objectives. We were basically approaching everyday using a compass with no magnet – our daily routine was absent of direction, guidance and basically:

  • What we needed to achieve.
  • How we would achieve it.
  • How we would measure our performance.

I was convinced that we needed to develop a Service and Support vision aligned with our primary business/organizational objectives. I started out with four simple questions and sought many different perspectives before we arrived at the core of what was to become our vision, strategy and structure:

1. WHY do you do it/why is it important?
2. WHO do you do it for/who are your customers?
3. WHAT are the expected business/IT benefits results?
4. HOW we are going to deliver, monitor, measure and report?

Struggling with Strategy

In the past, I always struggled with strategy.
I was a tactical service and support manager. I was a problem solver, a process owner, a report generator and a service provider. There was no time for strategy – we were too busy being tactical. There wasn’t enough time in the day to even be good at being reactive in addition to fighting with my peers over their role in providing seamless and transparent
end-to-end service to our customers. It was easy to make the Service Desk the ‘whipping boy’ until a savvy CIO was hired and challenged my peers to define their role in the IT service and support strategy. It was time for leadership and persistence to prepare myself and my team for developing a sound strategy.

I first began my “strategic learning experience” by exposing myself to senior people in the organization. I watched, listened and absorbed the way they made decisions. They used their aligned vision and strategy as a “litmus test” for all projects, requests, planning and budgeting – if it ‘fit’, it was in; if not, it was out. This experience taught me some valuable lessons in creating a clear and simple vision. The upfront work is critical and hard, but if done correctly - your vision will be your compass for determining which services are worth delivering and which will get the biggest business bang for your buck!

What’s important to your customers?

I had a recent experience with an IT Leadership team that brought back some vivid memories of my first involvement in the Strategic Planning process. I was nervous and couldn’t immediately see what value I was going to add until the facilitator asked the group, “Who knows what’s important to your customers?” I raised my hand and the facilitator called on me – “Pete, how is that you know what’s important to your business customers?” “I just got back from a technology rollout where I spent a week with a group of Development, Real Estate and Operational managers being trained on the new suite of applications modeled after their business processes. Last month, I conducted a three city tour of our major regions and had focus groups with the restaurant managers and last week, I sat on the phones for two days with the majority of my support professional’s listening to the voice of the customer.“

“Please share with us what their expectations are of IT in terms of service and support,” he stated with confidence. So from first-hand and front-line experience, I told the facilitator and my peers what our customers were telling us in IT via the Service Desk. I know what you’re thinking, that I dominated the conversation, right? Wrong! I was quick and to the point – lessons learned from my strategic mentors; be brief and meaningful, clear and concise, simplify and summarize or run the risk of losing your audience - quickly! Our customers wanted IT to deliver holistic services, offer a single point of contact that was accountable for end-to-end service delivery and resolution but more importantly;

1. Be the customer advocate (listen) and represent the collective voice of the customer to the entire IT organization.

2. Solve the business problem and teach all IT professionals to be business savvy in providing technology/business solutions that solve business problems or create business opportunities.

It’s just a tool upgrade – right?

I have had two recent experiences which leads me to believe that many service and support organizations continue to jump right into whatever it takes to address the assumed problem. Whether it is problem solving, continuous improvement initiatives, certifications and frameworks, tool upgrades or outsourcing, they are all willing to move forward quickly without first taking a look at strategy, vision and the new opportunity presented to them - stop, assess and visualize how you can do things differently!

A very recent experience with a large company who was upgrading to a new version of their Incident/Problem/Change Management system should not have surprised me when they complained that I was too focused on strategy, goals and objectives rather than the tactical project plan. I worked hard to get them to understand the difference between incremental gains (possible by upgrading the tool) and exponential leaps (possible by assessing the business situation, customer expectations and creating a clear and simple vision that offers a service and support value proposition to the business purpose).

On the right track.......

Will Rogers once said, “Even if you are on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there.” It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day and dismiss strategy as something out of your control. At the same time, you cannot afford to sit around and do nothing – it is not an option in today’s expense-trimming environment that is completely reliant on technology from everything to operations to R&D. The image, perception and value you deliver depend on your ability to take action! Don’t just sit there waiting for the train to come – you will never hear it! Take the time now to:

1. Develop a clear and concise service and support vision.
2. Align it with the Business and IT strategy, goals and objectives.
3. Create your supporting strategies to address how you will achieve your vision.
4. Identify the correct success metrics to include baseline, target and actual numbers.
5. Update your service professional’s compensation plan to support the success metrics.
6. Communicate, communicate, and communicate.
7. Assess performance frequently.
8. Adjust as needed – caution: don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!

Stop ignoring the importance of strategy first. Tie your service value proposition to bottom-line business value. Resist the day to day distractions, strategy de jour and stay laser-focused on what matters – achieving your strategic plan and creating value for the company.

About the Author
Peter McGarahan is the founder and president of McGarahan & Associates and acting Chairman of the IT Infrastructure Management Association. Pete’s value to the service and support industry is his thought leadership. As a practitioner, product manager and support industry analyst and expert, he has influenced the maturity of the service and support industry. His passion for customer service led the Taco Bell support organization to achieve the Help Desk Institute Team Excellence Award. IT Support News also named him one of the “Top 25 Professionals in the Service and Support Industry” in 1999. Support professionals voted McGarahan “The Legend of the Year” in 2002 and again in 2004 at the Help Desk Professionals conference for his endless energy, mentoring and coaching and his valuable contribution to the support industry and community. You can reach Peter McGarahan at or 714.694.1158.


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