Do you believe in the backlog fairy?

Usefully interpreting surveys about CIOs is a bit like veterinary medicine: While the howls of animal pain reveal something is amiss, the patients can’t articulate the details. You have to probe carefully to learn more even though it hurts.

Pain is surely evident in “The State of the CIO 2006” survey, but the devil is truly in the details. The unhappiness that immediately captured attention was embedded in these results: The backlog of projects/requests is the number-one hurdle to effectiveness for CIOs, followed by inadequate budgets and a shortage of time for strategic thinking and planning. Unknown and unrealistic expectations from the business, if combined, would displace backlog as the top factor.

This is going to hurt: Who are we kidding? Where do CIOs think these backlogs come from? The backlog fairy? But wait, there’s more! What do CIOs claim is their number-two hurdle in the effectiveness rankings? Inadequate budgets and a shortage of time for strategic thinking and planning.

Excuse me, but if you don’t have enough time or money to plan, strategize or prioritize, just what the heck do you think will happen to all those project requests? My bet is that you’ll get—yes!—a backlog. A big backlog. A messy backlog. The kind of backlog an unseasoned CIO might describe as the biggest hurdle to his effectiveness. (See “Backlog.” Read more on the survey.)

Backlogs are clearly symptoms, not causes of ineffectiveness. To wit: I’m in excruciating pain because my leg is broken. However, I still have a race to run. Believe it or not, my number-one hurdle to running fast isn’t the excruciating pain, it’s that my leg is broken! You would (rightly) think me a fool if I claimed I’d run marathons like an Olympic Kenyan if only I could tough it out or creatively sedate myself. Nonsense. CIOs have backlog pain because their budget and planning processes are broken.

That the surveyed CIOs declare backlogs as their number-one reason for ineffectiveness displays a professional predilection to treat symptoms rather than causes. Not good. If I were a CEO, CFO or COO, I’d think twice about retaining CIOs who prioritized managerial time and budgets that way.

The expectations trap

To underscore this blooming confusion around cause and effect management, let’s dig a little deeper into the survey results. Here’s an intriguing finding: Unknown and unrealistic expectations from the business, if combined, would displace backlog as the top factor. Now we’re getting somewhere useful. Maybe backlogs aren’t just symptoms of paltry budgets and a poverty of time. Maybe—just maybe—the better explanation for our backlogs and our awful feelings of ineffectiveness is our unhappy perception that the businesspeople we work with either don’t know what they want and need or have fantastical notions of what’s genuinely possible.

But this begs a truly profound question: Where do those unknown and unrealistic expectations come from? Do we not know what the business expects because we didn’t ask? Or because we didn’t understand the business issues well enough to understand what the request really entailed? Were we, to quote Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, impaled by “unknown unknown” expectations? Or did we fail as CIOs to ask the kind of questions that would allow us to successfully identify and manage a “known unknown”?

What’s responsible for all those unrealistic expectations? Is it those vendors who’ve circumvented us? Those Business Week and Fortune cover stories celebrating infinitely free bandwidth and open source? Or might those unrealistic expectations come from “stretch goals” in project scheduling intended to spur productivity but that instead guarantee late delivery? Or maybe these unrealistic expectations come from the promise (made by vendors and CIOs) that outsourcing mission-critical software development overseas will yield savings of 60 cents on the dollar over in-house development?

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 lifecycle. 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 rigor 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 enterprisewide 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.

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