After several years of skinny budgets, IT departments are preparing for an onslaught of new projects, as companies open up their checkbooks and start chipping away at the backlog of requests. Project managers are relieved that the economy is improving, but also apprehensive about a large influx of work, given the spate of recent staff reductions and hiring limitations. Project managers who can prioritize incoming requests and deliver speedy results will be in-demand.

"There are going to be some capacity issues when things heat up, because there's a lot of water behind the dam," said Tom Mellor, project leader for State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company. "Business people assume if it takes three hours to bake a pie at 350 degrees, you can simply turn up the oven to 1,000 degrees and the pie will be done sooner, but the agile development process doesn't work that way."

In addition to being a veteran project manager, Mellor is the board chairman for the non-profit Scrum Alliance and a Scrum Master Certification instructor. I asked him how IT departments and specifically project managers can increase output and productivity when the floodgates open. Here are his recommendations:

  • Prioritize appropriately: Companies need to prioritize projects based upon the need and ROI, not internal politics. "You can't run an IT department like an emergency room or you'll have chaos," says Mellor. "There has to be a logical and methodical way to prioritize the requests and project managers need to understand the priorities." Since 30 percent to 60 percent of an application's functionality is never used, Mellor suggests limiting the scope of each project to changes and upgrades that will have the greatest business impact and delay other requests until the backlog diminishes.
  • Manageable workloads: Small teams are more efficient than large teams and each group should be limited to three concurrent projects, because shifting back and forth between tasks reduces productivity. Large projects should be broken down into smaller segments lasting 15 to 30 days. "A consistent flow of work at a sustainable pace will yield the greatest output," advises Mellor. "Putting a lot of pressure on people doesn't help either; it just leads to a lot of abhorrent behavior."
  • Provide training: Project managers may need to hire additional employees or contractors to assist with the increased workload. But if the new employees have been out of work for awhile their technical skills may be out of date. It's best to provide training before new employees start working on a project advises Mellor; otherwise they may actually impede progress.

Do you agree with Mellor? How will you drive productivity as projects increase?

-- Leslie Stevens-Huffman