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27 May 2008

Test-driven IS strategy 4: implications

By Andrew Clifford

Test-driven strategy is easier to communicate and more flexible. It provides a clear mechanism for ongoing improvement.

Over the past three weeks, we have covered how the principles of test-driven development can be used to define and execute IS strategy. We have covered how system quality management provides a framework for this approach.

What are the benefits of this approach, and what are the drawbacks?

The main benefit is that it is simply a more efficient and more effective way to define and execute IS strategy. You spend less time and money on strategy, and achieve a better result.

There are three other key benefits:

  • It is easier to explain IS strategy and to justify the work required to achieve it. If you express strategy as IS processes, organisation and technology, the response from your business colleagues will be, "So what? This is just internal IS management. Why should I care?" Expressing strategy as outcomes that your colleagues value (such as continuity of service and speed of change) makes it much easier to explain and justify the required work.
  • It is easier to continuously improve the strategy. Most strategy is ill-defined. If something is not working, it is not clear whether the strategy needs improving, or management needs strengthening. An evaluative approach clearly separates intent from implementation. It lets you do both halves of your job - defining direction and achieving it - more easily.
  • It is better at coping with organisational change. Traditional strategy is rigid: it defines IS processes, organisation and technologies. Organisational change is hard, because the processes, organisation and even technologies need to be realigned to reflect changes in the broader business. An evaluative approach frees you from this. It lets you bring together different IS organisations under the same strategic umbrella. You can manage by bringing together objectives, and let realignment evolve more slowly where there is a real need.

Is there a downside to this approach? That depends on your perspective.

In a traditional approach, the strategy is expressed in terms of its implementation. This gives extra status to those who implement or work with "strategic" processes or "strategic" technologies. An evaluative approach changes this emphasis, and, politically, there will be winners and losers. Those who have built their careers by chasing after the next big thing in the name of strategy will lose out. The unsung heroes of IS, such as operations and support managers, will have the opportunity to show just how much their day-to-day activity drives the achievement of strategy.

On balance nobody really loses. This approach allows for better management of what we have, and more confident embracement of change.

Test-driven development is not really about testing. It is a way of thinking about systems, their design, and their development. An evaluative approach to strategy is similar. It is not really about checking that you are following strategy (though it does do that). It is a way of thinking about strategy, defining it, and executing it. It turns strategy from worthy words in a document to a practical tool for setting and achieving objectives.

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