Cloud Strategy or “How to waste a lot of time for little return”

Cloud Strategy, two of the most misunderstood and misused terms in recent years. Why? My experience points to a fundamental difference in perception between the various layers of an organization – Executive vs Managerial, Architecture vs Engineering, Development vs Operations or at a fundamental base – Vision vs Execution. This combined with loose definitions of what is a cloud and what is strategy and you get the stalled “Trough of Disillusionment” in Gartner terms for many cloud technologies. Gartner Hype Cycle reports track technologies from “Innovation Trigger” to “Peak of Inflated Expectations” to the “Trough of Disillusionment” to the “Slope of Enlightenment” and finally a few make it to the “Plateau of Productivity” with many falling to the wayside along the way. It’s not the technology that fails, it is the ability of organizations to effectively integrate the concept into their day-to-day operations and leverage it to create value. Sometimes it is a square peg in a round hole or the concept is ahead of the current state’s ability to deliver, but most often it is the internal organizational challenges deeply rooted in culture that is the impediment. In a future blog, I’ll talk more about the impact of culture but for now let’s focus on this thing called Cloud Strategy and how it contributes to the problem.

So, your CEO or CIO just returned from “fill in the blank” conference and declares, “We have to go the the cloud! Build me a cloud strategy. Have it on my desk in two weeks.” Turns and walks out the room. At this point you can A) get a copy of the presentations from said conference and regurgitate a cloud strategy document to match, B) follow them out of the room and ask them what they mean by “cloud strategy”, C) update your resume and LinkedIn profile which you need for A and B, or D) take the two weeks to build story of what it takes to build a meaningful strategy and present the milestone plan for how to do it right. We all know your going to have to deliver something in two weeks, but unless your organization is very flat and you have total control, your going to have to coordinate across many stakeholders to get buy in or your strategy will be DOA. A great way to proceed is to build a plan based on the AWS Cloud Adoption Framework or CAF.  Running a CAF workshop with all the key stakeholders is a great way to build your Cloud Activity Matrix and Cloud Roadmap. A workshop will help you ensure your cloud strategy is aligned to business requirements and link business value to measurable goals. But why shouldn’t I be a NIKE and just Do It! This is where the wasted time for little return comes into play.

There’s a saying, “If you don’t know where your going, any road will get you there.” I ask, but is “There” where you want to be? How do I take the shortest route? How to waste the fewest resources?  You can only answer these questions if you know two points 1) Where am I now and 2) Where do I want to be? In terms of the CAF those two points are 1) Clear assessment of your current capabilities, portfolio, talent, operations and architecture and 2) Clearly defined business goals for the cloud. We’re much better at the former than the later which leads to the random acts of tactical execution that fail more often than they succeed. But you say, “I learn something from every attempt don’t I?” and the answer is yes, but at what cost? We don’t have endless resources and unlimited time. Executive management has limited patience and expects near immediate returns on these investments. Without a clearly defined roadmap tied to key business goals that delivers value with each iteration, you can not communicate effectively and tell your story to the business. Think about this in terms of agile development. You have to write your Epic first, tell the big picture. Then break it down into stories that clearly define meaningful milestones. Finally, develop your sprints that deliver tangible capabilities. Then iterate through your sprints, measuring and identifying opportunities to improve. As you learn, you adjust and as business goals and opportunities arise you adjust, but always with the big picture in mind. That’s all well and good, but what are keys to success? How can I mitigate my risk?

Based on my experience and observations, I found the following to be critical keys to success:

  • Executive Sponsorship
  • Cloud-First Strategy
  • Principles & Standards
  • Experiment
  • Cloud Center of Excellence
  • Organizational Change
  • Adoption Roadmap

Executive Sponsorship: Without “C” level sponsorship, almost all Cloud efforts will fail. You need them to ensure alignment on business requirements and bring all the stakeholders with you. Your efforts will face everything from passive resistance to outright sabotage. Remember most traditional IT organizations view the cloud as the enemy and a threat to their jobs, you will need that Executive Sponsor if you are to withstand the challenges.

Cloud-First Strategy: This does not mean take everything to the cloud, rather look at every initiative and evaluate it for the cloud first. Only when you conclude it can’t go to the cloud within the framework adopted do you deploy onto traditional infrastructure. It has to be hard do do anything other than cloud and make cloud the path of least resistance.

Principles & Standards: Define architectures, patterns, and governance for your cloud program so you can have multiple teams and initiatives running at the same time and operate in harmony. As you iterate measure, monitor and adjust as necessary. Treat these as living documents and communicate, communicate, communicate. Leverage every collaboration tool in your organization.

Experiment: While it sounds contradictory, experimentation is key to building and testing effective principles and & standards. The challenge is to do it within a published framework with established guard rails. Your first set of principles and standards should address how to experiment and turn the results into architectures, patterns and governance. Successful companies give folks the freedom to innovate with a clear and easy path for formal adoption.

Cloud Center of Excellence: Change is hard and not everyone is up to the task. You can not take on such a huge transformative effort as cloud with folks doing it part time. A small focused group, dedicated to providing centralized expertise and guidance to decentralized innovations is a very small investment compared to the returns. COE’s have gotten a bad reputation over time mostly due to them growing too large and producing too little. Keep it small and tie their performance goals to the success of others and you’ll be surprised by the results.

Organizational Change: This is the hardest part of the entire journey and where most fail. You are going to have to define new operating models, policies, processes, financial models and provide training. There will be winners and losers, some will embrace the change and others actively resist it. It will severely test the limits of your executive sponsorship as this is where they will be challenged by their peers and expose the degree of alignment and teamwork in the “C” suite. Any company who fully embraces the cloud will not look the same if they are successful. If your not willing to take this on, seriously question if you should undertake the journey at all. Even small cloud initiatives create big waves in the organizational pond.

Adoption Roadmap: A clear adoption plan with realistic milestones is essential. Start small, measure, manage, and update the plan. An effective roadmap considers all perspectives of the CAF and sequences initiatives for success across all perspectives.

One final thought. You may have noticed I make no distinction between public, private, hybrid, managed, on-premises or off-premises when it comes to cloud. For me cloud is an attitude not a location. Cloud is a strategy and all the variations are just tactics based on the need of the moment.  Cloud is scalable and elastic, delivered as a service, on-demand from a shard pool of configurable computing resources in a pay-per-use, self-service manner. Where you do it should be driven by the business goals and application requirements following fit for purpose guidelines. Everyone’s journey is different, but if you don’t start you’ll never get there.

Gartner, Hype Cycle, Strategy