Initiative overload. Those words send a chill down the spine of IT leaders everywhere. Not only are overloaded teams juggling too many projects, morale is usually low, with long hours every week and no end in sight. Yet, leaders can’t arbitrarily kill or stall projects without suffering blowback from somewhere. If you’ve been tapped to lead a DevOps team and you see too many projects in play, breaking initiative overload is a top priority. Here’s where to start.
It’s very common that highly productive DevOps teams suddenly end up with a list of 20 or 30 “priorities” and rapidly developing gridlock. As the team’s newly anointed coach, you get one shot to fix it. What’s your strategy? Addressing these objectives is critical in breaking initiative overload:
- Prioritize the right initiatives.
- Shorten the priority list, ideally to five or fewer projects.
- Allocate resources so priority projects start and finish promptly.
- Communicate and defend prioritization with a transparent metric.
- Identify and plan the “next project up” as priority projects finish.
- Empower the team with “not a priority right now” if approached.
- Get buy-in and hold all team members accountable.
Gather the List
Sounds complicated, right? Keeping it simple is usually good advice. When you’ve got a long list of projects, first recognize they are not all created equal. Some are truly initiatives, such as that mandate from the CEO for tracking widget sales in real-time. Functional departments have their important projects, providing needed cost reduction or efficiency improvement. You’ll probably see a few wish list projects from various sponsors with weaker justification.
Next, understand that every project carries a couple of hidden costs. One is the opportunity cost of assigning precious resources to it and not to something else. Another is the switching cost teams incur when they are multitasking too heavily. Neither of these costs can be eliminated; however, they can be optimized within the context of what resources are needed.
So, make a list of every development project on your radar. List the untouchable initiatives with C-level sponsors. Add the functional projects and those pet project requests. Don’t filter the list at all—anything consuming resources or awaiting start needs visibility. Now, you should see what all the initiative overload chatter in the hallways is about. Take a deep breath, call your team leads together and order your preferred brainstorming chow for a meeting.
Create the Plot
Seated around you should be a mix of your best technologists and line-of-business experts. Look at the list together. Sponsors may have justified a project request without a real assessment of merit. If you need someone to speak to a project that team leads haven’t seen, bring in a departmental expert. If they can’t explain it or it’s an outdated request they want to revise, put it in a parking lot. When you’re sure your team leads all understand every project on the list, assign a letter designation for each project.
On your whiteboard or shared screen, plot each project against two dimensions: implementation ease and business impact. Use a relative scale of low, medium or high for each axis. Implementation ease can incorporate many variables including cost of tools, technical difficulty, in-house expertise and more. Business impact can address revenue increase, cost reduction, competitive advantage or regulatory compliance. Don’t worry about absolutes; you’re looking to see how a project compares to all other opportunities. Adjust the pins if necessary after the first few projects are plotted. You’ll get the hang of it in just an hour or two, even if it’s a long list.
Line Up Priorities
Few projects are priority no-brainers with high business impact and high implementation ease. More likely, you have several projects in the “priority box,” scoring better than medium/medium. If you have more than five projects there, take another look and jostle pins a bit to get a manageable list. Make sure your available resources match projects identified in the priority box. Allow one exception: That C-level initiative may score as high business impact and low/medium implementation ease. Killing it just because it’s difficult isn’t a good move, but prioritization within context can help address resourcing.
That’s the priority list you take back to your team. If it’s on that list, work it and finish it. If something isn’t on that list, your team kicks any inquiries on those projects back to you. Push projects with low business impact and low/medium implementation ease back to their sponsors for justification or removal. When one of the priority projects finishes, then and only then start the next best ranking project. Rescore the entire project list after the first group of projects is complete.
Too easy? Here’s a recent HBR article, “Too Many Projects,” describing a more elaborate approach for bigger initiatives. You may need such in-depth analysis for a C-level initiative requiring more resources. For most projects on your list, more analysis takes substantially more time and likely produces the exact same prioritization as this faster method.
The key to breaking initiative overload is starting and finishing the right projects. Creating a vetted priority list quickly and getting the team rolling again is well worth the price of an afternoon and some food. Morale will improve rapidly as your team sees progress and the business sees value faster.
I’d enjoy your feedback on how this process works for you.