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Do You Believe in the Backlog Fairy?

Do You Believe in the Backlog Fairy?

CIOs don't just manage IT enterprise expectations, they <i>lead</i> them. CIOs who manage expectations don't have enterprise partners surprising them with unrealistic or unknown expectations too late in the project lifecycle

As this column has repeatedly argued, CIOs don't just manage IT enterprise expectations, they lead them. CIOs who manage expectations don't have enterprise partners surprising them with unrealistic or unknown expectations too late in the project life cycle. Misleading and mismanaged expectations are guarantors of - all together now - the backlogs that CIOs find so troubling.

In the interests of fairness and full disclosure, I've had CIOs I admire tell me that backlogs are, indeed, how they manage and lead enterprise expectations. They tell the CFO or chief marketing officer: "See these backlogs? See how much in demand our services are? We need more money! We need more resources! You guys do such a bad job of managing IT's expectations that we just can't rationally plan for all the last-minute surprises you spring on us!"

In other words, the backlog "bug" becomes a feature some of the more manipulative CIOs use to extract bigger budgets and greater resources from their firms. They have effectively trained their organizations to treat backlogs as causes - rather than symptoms - of the IT issues confronting the enterprise.

CIOs aren't stupid. If they can get greater support by defining backlogs as their number-one problem, why should anyone be surprised by that tactic? For them, dishonesty is the best policy.

That's why I find surveys about CIOs so important. They are a public test - a revealing diagnostic - of the role that honesty, integrity and simple economic priorities play in our field. If I were editing those survey results, I would combine the unrealistic and unknown expectation numbers to headline the ongoing CIO crisis in expectations leadership.

The pain and frustration of most CIOs comes from root causes that have little to do with money and resources and everything to do with rigour and relationships. We either don't know what we don't know or we allow - and sometimes even encourage - our colleagues and customers to believe things that simply cannot be true. Like the promise that we can upgrade that enterprise-wide CRM system in a few weeks.

Then, in an act of chutzpah that guarantees that CIOs will mortally wound their professional credibility, we declare that we're ineffective because of the backlogs that threaten to overwhelm us.

When a profession blurs symptoms with causes - and exploits that confusion to gin up budgets and extra resources - then something is rotten in the field. Let's use surveys like this as an opportunity to challenge ourselves about what our real barriers to effectiveness might be.

Michael Schrage is co-director of the MIT Media Lab's eMarkets Initiative. He can be reached at schrage@media.mit.edu

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