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Getting Strategic Projects off the Back Burner

Do you find that important projects that promise long term benefits continuously get postponed and often never get done?  We call this the perpetual back burner projects syndrome.

Some years ago I worked with a technical services group that found itself constantly postponing work on long term projects because they were constantly jumping on the short term, ad hoc projects that kept coming up day after day.  The short term projects were responses to service requests.  The long term projects were infrastructure changes, of which many would reduce the occurrence of or eliminate many of the causes of the service requests that kept the group from working on the long term projects.

In one situation the attempt to implement a project governance process kept getting postponed because the very people who would benefit most by it were too busy to spend any time working on the project. 

In another situation the work of analyzing the cause of ad hoc problems and requests and addressing those causes was postponed indefinitely because there were too many ad hoc problems and requests for services.

What is One to Do?

What is one to do when the current work load, made up of tactical, “must-get-done-now” projects continuously overburdens available resources and leaves none for the long term strategic projects?

Here are some choices, many of which can be used in combination to overcome the perpetual back-burner project syndrome:

  1. Do nothing and live with never getting the long term projects done until they become critical and then rush to do them under pressure and often at great expense.  Interestingly, this is what most groups choose (perhaps tacitly, but a choice nevertheless).  This is a predominant choice because there is not enough time to assess and act upon the problem.  In some cases the long term project never gets critical, so it never gets done.
  2. Build a strong business case that will sell the idea of sacrificing the immediate gratification that comes from addressing short term ad hoc projects to obtain the benefits from the longer term strategic projects.  Sell the idea to the level of management that has the power to do something to change the situation; for example, like getting more resources or delaying ad hoc project responses.
  3. Reorganize so that resources are dedicated to the longer term projects and they are buffered from short term priorities.  This reduces the band-width of the ad hoc group and may extend delivery times on the short term projects.  Note that current delivery time expectations may be completely unreasonable and unnecessary. 
  4. Establish or refine the project intake and prioritization process to get tighter control over the scheduling.
  5. Use a critical chain scheduling approach to eliminate unproductive multi-tasking and increase throughput while dedicating some resources (full or part time) to the longer term projects.
  6. Get more resources, and dedicate some to the long term projects.  Avoid getting more resources and letting them get sucked into the ad hoc response mode that you are trying to remedy.

What are you doing?

The perpetual back burner project syndrome costs organizations huge amounts of money and tends to frustrate and burn out many valuable resources.  Doing something about it requires courage and intelligence.   What are you doing?

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George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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