Defining the Future - Where Do I Start?

Steven A Warner, Director of Technology Innovation, Fannie Mae
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We live in exciting times, where many major enterprises are on a trajectory that attempts to define (and achieve) a future that incorporates disruptive technologies and is very different from the past.  This trajectory might embody a vision that includes terms such as “Cloud First,” “cloud native applications,” virtualization, micro-services, containers, and many more of the currently used buzzwords.  A vision statement that looks five years out in an executive PowerPoint presentation would incorporate some or all of these terms and be portable between much of the Fortune 500 (certainly within a given market area).  There’s nothing wrong with this commonality of vision–It merely reflects the last 10 years or so of industry directions that have been well socialized amongst all of us. Truly there is nothing special or unique about this end state.

What’s special, and distinguishes individual markets and enterprises within them, is where we are each starting from and the technical debt and history that we must often unburden as we proceed toward our vision.  So how do we get there?  I’d like to share my thoughts and observations on some things that have worked for me.

Bad starts are hard to overcome, so early first steps are important.  An enterprise needs to begin first with a robust brainstorming activity that takes a well-crafted and detailed vision statement and begins to dissect each aspect of the vision as to “What does this mean?” “Where are we now?” “What are the obstacles to getting here?” and “What are the things that we need to do to move towards this particular aspect of the vision?”  Corporate directives, industry directions, and market considerations must also factor into this analysis.  Iterative brainstorming will begin to yield goals, and also roadmaps of the goals’ time-sequence.  Goal roadmaps may be two-dimensional, and also reflect subordinate goal hierarchies that must first be achieved before a top-level goal is realized.

  ​Bad starts are hard to overcome, so early first steps are important  

Goals and roadmaps are not themselves actionable. What is required next is the development of strategies from these goals and roadmaps – a much less difficult exercise than consultants in this area would often like us to believe.

Goals become the fundamental building blocks of strategies, which take goals and then factor in the behaviors and resources necessary to achieve the goals, along with metrics for the measurement of success or failure in outcome – these metrics ultimately measure the value to the enterprise of the strategy.  As with goal roadmaps, strategies may also be sequenced in time and hierarchical – where some strategies must be realized before others can be attempted.

Of course, there is a crucial socialization process that must accompany these exercises.  Developing strategies in a vacuum accomplishes little – good strategies that have a reasonable likelihood of successful achievement will do so only after receiving the critical acclaim of those who must work together to achieve them.  This socialization will usually result in refinement and “tweaking” of the strategies – all for the better!

With a comprehensive set of good strategies that have been well socialized we are ready to roll up our sleeves and begin the detailed planning that expands these strategies into schedule, detailed resource estimates, budget requests and the prerequisites and constraints necessary for execution.  Good and “just enough” systems engineering practices will also help to ensure success, as will appropriate governance that assesses progress and identifies any needs for course correction as they emerge.  These topics are covered in ample detail in many other resources.

Two other topics deserve consideration.  The first is the much over-used and misused term of innovation, an element of many strategies.  What exactly is innovation?

Over time I have seen many different definitions for innovation. Indeed, the popular literature runs over with many detailed and elaborate definitions. As with strategy development I think the reality can be greatly simplified. Innovation is not coming up with good ideas -- that better mousetrap. Coming up with a better mousetrap is an arguably interesting and maybe good idea but with no intrinsic value by itself. Instead, I define innovation as “good ideas put to work to yield value.”

So what does this mean? Let’s say for example that we have an interest in hyper converged infrastructure (aka HCI, a very popular technology), which claims to offer many benefits for a number of applicable use cases. By itself, HCI is arguably interesting, BUT, if we can identify a number of use cases that decrease both time to provide customer value (however we choose to measure that) and do this at a significantly reduced total cost of ownership, then we have invoked innovation as a strategy element to achieve a goal with business value.  Assuming the metrics at journey’s end support it then we have also successfully executed that containing strategy and achieved its goal.

The final topic worthy of mention is cultural change.  Much of the elements of our vision will require significant cultural change if they are to be successfully achieved.  As in all endeavors, people are the most important part of change and, it’s sad to say, that very often disruptive change breaks an existing culture and results in the formation of a new one.  Many people will resist change and some will not be able to adapt to the new culture.  In my studies I have looked across multiple industries for how this occurs, and have found one of the best examples of culture change and innovation in the post-World War II formation of the American nuclear Navy, led by Admiral Hyman Rickover.  Much has been written on this topic that can help us on our own journey’s toward our visions, and I would recommend as a good example “Against the Tide: Rickover's Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy,” by Dave Oliver.  I consider this book required reading for anyone looking to define a new future.

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