A global crisis reorders priorities everywhere. Take the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which is increasing demand for valuable resources across the board, including IT. The need for digital capabilities, already constrained pre-COVID, is (with minimal notice) causing a rapid expansion in IT backlogs, which threatens business continuity.

For example,  take the growing backlog of legacy application enhancements that persist even to this day. In the aftermath of COVID, backlogs are undermining many of the U.S. government’s assistance programs since they are ill-equipped to keep pace with surging unemployment claims and demand for small business stimulus checks. 

Although the business impact of backlogs varies, they typically contribute to mismatched organizational priorities and eventually undermine customer experience, among other things. While some businesses have the luxury of delaying or eliminating their backlog, others have no choice but to methodically clear it by whatever means. This often takes time, an abundance of resources and Herculean effort, all of which today are in short supply.

Although CIOs have made serious attempts to groom and refine their backlogs, they usually have little choice but to prioritize key elements that accelerate returns on the organization’s overall business objectives. The onset and rapid spread of COVID-19 has forced many CIOs to make even more trade-offs, leading to incomplete digital change. So, what can be done?

Managing IT Priorities

The following are among the key strategic moves your organization should consider to cope with backlog management during a crisis – and beyond.

  1. Address the conflict between transformation and optimization initiatives.

    A crisis can cause financial impediments and capital constraints. If not managed well, critical projects will end up in the backlog at the expense of optimization initiatives that are conceived in the spirit of saving money. This can derail efforts that offer longer term benefits related to the business’s more holistic digital strategy.

    Proper crisis management ensures that critical business priorities are not diluted due to a crisis. To achieve a balance between optimization and transformation, decision makers should apply new metrics and KPIs to assess what is important to the organization in the short and long term.

    One such measure is to compare the optimization value (e.g., cost savings) to the transformation value (e.g., revenue-generated). Additionally, make sure the optimization owners are not deciding on the transformation projects and vice versa. By striking the right balance between the two in the decision-making process, businesses can ensure long-term objectives aren’t compromised for short-term benefits.

  1. Act as a scrum master.

    Crisis introduces a firefighting mindset. Key members of the leadership team won’t have time to discuss or review backlog projects unless there is a direct connection to crisis impact.

    CxOs should be like scrum masters in the Agile methodology. Scrum masters act as a coach and a protector. They engage teams through daily stand-up meetings, constantly reminding everyone of the product owner’s vision, while facilitating a smooth workflow and managing the product backlog for each sprint.

    When CxOs consistently communicate the organizational priorities and the adjustments that are in flight, teams stay committed to the plan.

  1. Be organized with systematic backlog assessment.

    The objective is to achieve as much informational granularity as needed for decisive action. Consider developing a system for periodically capturing updated information on backlog items. Arrange to get the business owners’ assessment of each of the backlog items – its estimate, time requirement, cost and resource demands – to arrive at the “sizing” of the backlog.

    Special efforts should be taken to align IT and the business on backlog priorities. You may also want to have a running display of priority changes among the backlog items in every quarterly technology report, reminding everyone of the organizational focus.

  1. Gamify backlog management to implement self-checks.

    For backlog items that don’t require senior executive decision making, gamified self-checks can fill the void. Take Amazon’s “two-pizza team” approach to project management, in which a team is considered too large if it can’t be fed with just two pizzas. This approach is self-organized and nurtures internal competition for excellence in resource management.

    To gamify backlog management, the first step is to make the team’s performance transparent to everyone. This makes the competition for resources interesting and democratized. By systematically publishing details on available resources, competing teams and the criteria for team selection for awarding the available resources, the competition among teams remains lively. The end result is a meritocracy in which winning teams are recognized for their accomplishments and awarded the resources that they competed for. 

  1. Be prepared to include less critical items in the running.

    During a crisis, if the “urgent-important” assessment alone guides the decision-making process, less-critical employees will be disengaged and left to watch from the sidelines. Keeping everyone busy helps to effectively manage emotions during a crisis.

    Consider the approach that a Boston-based medical center we work with has undertaken, before and after COVID struck. It crowdsourced some backlog initiatives among less-critical employees. This process not only cut costs and provided a mechanism to align employees’ interests/skills with existing opportunities or new ideas, but it also effectively engaged employees with the organization rather than laying them off. Such a process increases the bond between employees and employers.

Backlogs are an essential component of resource management, as it helps maximize the efficiency of organizational resources. Throwing more resources at the backlog is only a productivity trap. Implementing a methodical process not only helps to refine, groom and prioritize backlogs, but it also provides a flow of execution that can make organizations stronger.

This post builds on a blog that originally appeared on Forbes.com

Visit our COVID-19 resources page for additional insights and updates.

Anbu Muppidathi

Anbu Muppidathi

Anbu Muppidathi is a member of Cognizant’s executive leadership team and is a senior leader in the company’s Digital Systems and Technology... Read more