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How to prevent IT department overload

Minda Zetlin | May 21, 2013
Managing the flow of an infinite supply of worthwhile projects through a finite IT operation takes finesse. Here's how to avoid the backlog and the chaos.

A High-Level View
How do you stop the madness? It begins with a long-term, high-level approach that takes IT's most important goals into account. Unfortunately, many IT shops aren't taking such an approach. "When I stepped into this role a couple of years ago, we probably had more than 200 projects going at any given time, but we were responding to a lot of quick-reaction type things. There wasn't much of a coherent strategy that linked all those things together," says Joe Mahaffee, executive vice president and chief information security officer at Booz Allen Hamilton, a management and IT consultancy in McLean, Va., that had revenue of $5.86 billion in 2012.

So Mahaffee and his team worked with corporate leaders to identify seven strategic initiatives they believed would be important and then plan what needed to be done to complete those projects within a couple of years. For instance, a decision to move to unified communications allowed the firm to stop spending money on extensive PBX systems. "Now if we're modernizing an office, we invest in voice-over-IP technology instead," he says.

A strategic approach won't work without the support and participation of upper management. That's why many IT departments find that establishing a governing group of some sort -- one made up of IT leaders and their upper-level business counterparts -- is the first step to taming a chaotic IT workload.

"About a year ago, we changed the model of how we govern all IT projects," Mahaffee says. "There were four governance models that had some sort of contact with IT, and we centralized all that. Now we have one governing body providing direction and helping us define priorities." That group includes Mahaffee, Booz Allen CIO Kevin Winter and leaders from each of the company's marketing teams and major departments. All in all, the group is about 15 people who meet fairly frequently. "It helps me keep alignment with the business," says Winter. "Requests get funneled to this body so decisions aren't made in a vacuum. Everybody around the table gets a say in what gets funded."

Knowing When to Say No
More important, there is top-level backing for decisions about what doesn't get funded. Experts agree: The only way to put an end to IT overload is with the support of upper-level management. One of Gilmore's first acts at the company with the overloaded IT department was to decree that IT would not take on new projects for a time. And he did that with the complete support of the company's top executive, who had heard about enough problems with technology projects to know something had to change.


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