Have you ever asked yourself…?
- Do I need more people? Seems like I have too much to do.
- Am I working on the right stuff? Everything seems important.
- Am I getting the right guidance from my customers? What’s most important?
- Do I need to hire more people? With new skill sets? Maybe more leadership type people?
- How am I going to get this done? What is the best way to organize my backlog?
- What’s the priority? Everyone is saying do mine first.
- Is there visibility to what I am doing? Can others see my list of work to do?
Or conversely, have YOU ever been asked these questions by others, such as your manager or a customer? And if you have, did you struggle with the answers? Well, you are not alone; most people do struggle. Once, at a major client meeting of mine, the Executive Vice President told one of his directors, “You will get all the resources you need. Just give me the business case or show me some data or something.” Since the director had no written list or backlog of work and no way to log, status, prioritize or track his backlog or work, he was unable to get additional resources. Yes, he did need them; he was swamped with work. But any reasonably qualified manager must act on good solid data, and not a naïve request like: “I am really busy, can I hire?” Sorry, that wouldn’t work for me either.
Demand vs. Work: What’s the Difference?
As Leonardo da Vinci said, “May your work be in keeping with your purpose.” That could be interpreted in two possible ways. First, it may imply that if you are passionate about the work you do for a living, then your purpose and passion for working and the work itself, are in alignment: nirvana. Or, secondly, maybe more on the practical side, Da Vinci was asking us to contemplate: is the work that you are doing the “right” work? I am sure you are getting requests for your services daily and they are stacking up. How do you know what the right work to execute is since you are unlikely to be able to do it all?
So, let’s divide what you do for a living into two categories: Demand and Work.
Demand is what others are asking you to do. It is your “to-do” list or backlog of activities. From this list or backlog, you must be able to select the RIGHT work. Remember, not all demand is worthy of doing. The other part of what you do for a living is executing the work and doing it RIGHT. Hence, “right work” (what is best to do next) vs. “work right” (what people, processes, or tools will be employed to do the work in the most effective way).
The more academic definition of demand management is the planning methodology you use to forecast, plan for, and manage the demand for products and services…not the work itself.
I would suggest to you that the world of “demand” can be simplified and divided into 3 main categories: operations, projects, and initiatives. That is, all demand that a company may have will fall into one of these categories.
Here are some general attributes of operations demand:
- Day-to-day work
- Keeps the lights on
- Like a utility
- Issues tracked in a ticketing system
- Typically, smaller units of work
- Always-running production activities
Here are some general attributes of project demand:
- Drives new revenues
- Supports existing products
- Drives cost containment
- Management focus
- Typically, medium-sized work
- Begins and ends
- When complete, transitions to operations
Here are some general attributes of initiatives:
- Propels a company forward
- Long-term strategic outcomes
- Major new products
- Typically, very large
My guess is that you are already familiar with what operations and projects are. The term initiatives may need a little more clarification. Business initiatives are the means through which a strategic vision is translated into practice and implemented. A vision is a realistic and credible future-state for an organization. Here are a few examples:
- Increase revenue by 15% across all business units
- Build a new, cost efficient aircraft to gain 10% of market share
- Implement a new CAD engineering system corporate-wide
Where Does This Demand Come From?
To further refine the categories of demand, let’s discuss where the demand may typically come from for each:
Operations demand is generally more informal and is typically driven from the people in the organization that are getting all the work done: the production workers. They are trying to get their work completed and when they encounter an “operational” issue, they need help fast. They will call you, email you, fill out a form, and more likely, open a ticket or have a help center open a ticket for them. These will need to be resolved quickly as well.
Projects on the other hand have more upstream planning and are larger pieces of potential work. This work may come from a business manager, a project request system, or even operations that may drive projects if the operations work is more than a predefined threshold of resources. Lastly, a major source of new projects would be driven from initiatives.
Initiatives are very large, strategic endeavors that will lead a company purposefully into the future. This is where most of the corporate “spend” may go. This demand has the longest lead time, the largest budget typically, and consumes most discretionary funds. The demand for initiatives comes from the top, so beware and be prepared.
Let’s Get Organized
No matter which demand type we are talking about, they all need a demand management process that will suit the demand type. The illustration below shows a demand management process that will collect the demand, organize it into understandable and actionable information, enable the tracking and reporting of the demand, and lastly provide clear priorities with rationale. One of the key results or outcomes of a demand management process is approved work to execute. Let me rephrase: the RIGHT work (the “what”) is approved to be worked on in the RIGHT way (the “how”).
Prioritizing Work and Backlog Management
The outcome of the demand process in the above illustration is approved work to execute. How that work gets approved to be worked on is known as “backlog management.” More formally, backlog management is the process of reviewing items on the backlog to ensure the backlog contains the appropriate items, that they are prioritized, and that the items at the top of the backlog are ready to be worked on.
The activity of backlog management is specialized for each demand type. For operations, backlog management is performed daily and even twice a day based on the nature of the work and your available resources. Here is a basic backlog management process for operations:
- Assemble the daily backlog management team; keep it the right size. Include only the key people, so other people are still working on tickets or other operational activities.
- Review production issues tickets first; these are the tickets that came in and based on the criticality of the tickets, were immediately approved and worked on: like an application crashing, for example.
- Also, look at any of those tickets that are “in-work” at this time to ensure adequate resources are assigned and attention is focused. No reason to approve new work if the work previously approved is understaffed—if, for example, someone fell ill. Modify resources as appropriate.
- Next, review new tickets.
- Make sure you have gathered any additional information about the new ticket, so you can assess the ticket or issue enabling better demand management decisions.
- Then, assign the ticket a priority. Who knows? Maybe this ticket went right to the top and pushed others down the list.
- Now, review the top “n” tickets. That is the top three or five, or whatever works for you.
- If appropriate, approve tickets from the backlog: that means they are ready to work.
- Please note: based on resources, you might not approve any new tickets for this backlog management session since all resources may be consumed.
- Don’t be afraid to stop working tickets if you need to re-allocate resources to other more pressing ticket(s).
- Notice you are now collecting data about the work in your backlog, the time tickets remain in your backlog, and the time and effort to complete tickets. Referring to my opening paragraphs, now you have good data to present to your management as a case for adding resources.
The activity of project backlog management is a bit different. Since projects are larger activities compared to operations, with a budget and a schedule, project backlog management can be performed bi-weekly or monthly. The bi-weekly sessions are just to be sure everything is on track and to make some adjustments. Whereas, your monthly backlog management is a more comprehensive activity. Do what makes sense for you; maybe quarterly is an option as well.
Here is a basic backlog management process for projects:
- Assemble the project backlog management team and keep it the right size; i.e. only involve key people and don’t over invite.
- Review new project requests and ensure all the key information is documented about the new project, so you can assess the project and make better demand management decisions.
- Review and incorporate feedback from the projects “in-work,” such as status reports, metrics, etc. to help you make better demand management decisions.
- Now that you have the key information about projects in the backlog as well as projects in-work, you can re-prioritize the backlog and adjust resources on existing projects if appropriate. It may be that one project has hit a blocker, and you might be able to slide over some resources onto another project.
- Also, consider stopping work or reducing work on projects if you need to reallocate resources to other, more pressing projects. One thing I have seen too often: many times once a project is started, no one has the practicality to stop it, if warranted.
- But to stop a project, you will need to be prepared. You will need to have solid data about the project—its scope, goals, risks, and outcomes—to make a case with the project sponsors.
Lastly, initiative backlog management involves very large strategic activities. This backlog management activity may occur quarterly, with deeper more comprehensive backlog management semi-annually and annually. Since these are larger and take a lot of time, it is important to choose the right team.
Here are some basic guidelines for assembling your initiative team:
- All backlog management involves first assembling the right people or subject matter experts so that the the best decisions will be made. With initiatives, you will have a challenge assembling your team since it will be composed of very senior individuals.
- You need the right team to help you determine your initial business initiatives and their associated projects, and as I keep mentioning, how better to ensure the initiatives and projects are aligned to the business, then by including senior business leaders and subject matter experts into your initiative demand management process?
- Your potential team members will be drawn from the board of directors, senior executives, and line of business (LOB) leaders. I prefer to use the term “executive steering group” instead of backlog managers for this group.
- Here is how I might approach each:
- With the board of directors, I would suggest limited interviews to get their vision and recommendations. Their time is precious and limited.
- With senior executives, I would have regular interviews to get their vision and recommendations. And, maybe one or two people from this group could be in your steering group.
- With LOB leaders, I would have regular and consistent interviews and also have many of this group be on your team.
- Lastly, you will need several subject matter experts, or SMEs, helping you identify and collect the initiative’s projects and associated key business data.
- This then, will constitute the team that will first distill and determine the initial list of initiatives, and continue to perform the regular backlog management of the initiatives and their projects.
As you have seen, we spent a little more time discussing the members of the team. Now, let’s briefly review the initiative backlog management process:
- Rank the value and benefits for each proposed initiative and project.
- Use attributes, such as
- Increasing revenue
- Reducing cost
- Improving customer service
- Appraise the risk to achieve the expected benefits.
- Assess resources (people, money, etc.) available and alignment with initiatives.
- Don’t forget about intangible benefits. Some things may be more difficult to measure, such as market share or brand image, but are still important to account for.
- Assess what effect there may be on existing operations and other in-work projects. There may be projects working counter to each other. The bigger the company, the more situations you will have like this.
Information like this will help you prioritize and approve work activity. Certainly, this is the short list. True initiative management, also known as portfolio management, can be very complex with many interdependent variables.
Not all backlogs are created equal within our demand type categories for a company. In the illustration below, there is only one initiatives backlog in a company since this backlog is driving the future state of the entire company. You do not want two cooks in the kitchen for this backlog type.
There may be multiple project and operations backlogs. Some may be in vertical business units such as engineering within an aerospace company, and some may cut across multiple business units based on synergies, costs, and management. Also, there could be one or more project management offices running a few projects in each. Or, maybe there is a program management office running programs with multiple projects and operations organizations contained within. In my view, project oversight should be brought together and consolidated as much as possible to ensure resources are best allocated within the organization.
Operations backlogs are typically scattered around an organization and should be brought together and consolidated as much as possible to ensure resources are best allocated as well. The backlog management cycle is daily and possibly twice per day—once in the morning to kick off the day and once after lunch sometime to make any adjustments and course corrections.
The Bottom Line
Take a moment to reflect on the initial questions I posed at the beginning of the article, such as: Am I working on the right stuff? What’s the priority? And others. With solid demand management processes, you will be better prepared and more easily be able to answer those questions. You absolutely need the ability to collect the demand, organize it into understandable and actionable information, track and report the demand, and lastly provide clear priorities with rationale to your management or customers.
The bottom line is that well-established demand management processes encompassing the three key demand types will allow you to get a firm handle on your demand while instilling greater trust in your management and customer base. Also, these good management practices will provide your teams with the direction and support for them to excel and flourish within busy work environments.
Want to Learn More?
If you want to learn more about demand and work management, please check out one of my Pluralsight courses: Demand and Work Management: A Practical Guide by Michael Krasowski. URL: www.pluralsight.com/courses/demand-work-management.
Fairway Technologies Inc.