"You really are constrained not only by hours and functions, but also by the expertise you have in the business context," Coombes says. "That really is the key to understanding what a subject-matter expert is. You may have a developer who's good at development work and an architect who really understands how a system is put together. But to meet the demands of the business, you have to have people who really understand the needs of the business. Those are the people who are hard to find and to hang on to."
That's why Coombes and his team sometimes review the time commitments of specific individuals when planning projects. "We ask who do we need on this project to guarantee it will be successful? A certain key individual might be needed on two or three different projects at the same time, and that creates a constraint that's difficult to deal with."
At the company with the overworked IT department, Gilmore says management had been addressing that issue with a bit of magical thinking: There were only two managers in application development so their names appeared on every project. "Any time anything new came in, one of them got put on it," Gilmore says. "They were listed to all these action items, and one of them alone took six months!"
When IT shops face such situations, there's a danger that people may wind up in roles they can't handle. "Your bottleneck might be the business analyst," says Handler. "Offshore you can get a double Ph.D. for next to nothing to do the technical work, so a lot of companies send that work overseas and keep their business analysts as busy as possible. Then when they get overloaded, they say, 'Let's get Bob to do it. He's in IT finance -- that's like a business analyst.' And then Bob makes a big mess."
The only solution, Handler says, is to know what your department's limitations are and respect them. "Most of the time, the constraining resource is humans, and a good portion of the time it's humans with technical skills. Sometimes it's cash. On rare occasions, I've seen it be conference rooms. But whatever it is, you've got to identify the constraining resource and stop approving things when it looks like you're out of that resource."
At Gilmore's client, the move to setting realistic limits seems to be working. "So far, so good," he says. "Projects are on track, resources are allocated, and people are happy."
The company's IT strategy is set for the rest of 2013, and it's planning for 2014, identifying which projects will need new hires or outside contractors. Meanwhile, business executives are learning to trust IT. "We're being honest with them and saying, 'Based on our workload, we can't get to you till nine months from today.'" Gilmore says. "But then after that period has passed, we're coming back and saying, 'Now we can start on this.' So they see it's working."