Your Backlog Nullifies Your Strategy

Added to Process

Your company values are defined by the worst behaviors permitted within your business.


I always thought that was a rather negative world view. But it helped me to think of defining business performance in terms of our habituations. In Behavioral Science, people habituate to a stimulus, which is the opposite of forming a habit. It means we normalize to something and stop responding to it. At home, the pile of old Tupperware and clothes we’ve been meaning to donate to charity have been sitting for months collecting dust. We don’t even notice it sitting there on the floor anymore. We’ve habituated to the pile…for a lot of common reasons. Inconvenience of dropping the pile off to a charity. Minimizing the problem by telling ourselves it’s just a small pile. Procrastinating since there is always something more important or urgent which needs our attention. Do any of these reasons sound familiar?


“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” — Sun Tzu

Around the large, plush table sits the entire executive IT team. The VP of Infrastructure and Operations is the last person to present her piece of the strategy from the slide deck. She asks with a proud smile: “Well Elliot, what do you think of our 5-year IT strategy?”

“It is remarkably consistent with the strategies of IT departments at other companies I’ve visited for the first time.” Elliot replied.

“I’m honored that you invited me here today and greatly appreciate your presentations.” Elliot said. “As you know from referrals, I like to dive right in and also value respectful candor. So, let’s switch gears. Did you invite your Data Scientists to this meeting like we discussed?”

The ERP VP spoke up, “We don’t have those, but Leah knows all our data and can report on anything.”

“Good.” replied Elliot. “Leah, I’m going to ask the executive team several questions. Please attempt to find the answers while we are talking. However, let the leaders try to answer the questions first. Thank you.”

Elliot continued, “Will someone tell me what is the oldest ticket in your backlog, starting with your ticketing system?”

Everybody went quiet. They stared at Elliot. And then tried to covertly look at the CIO to figure out why their time was getting wasted talking about tickets. They had a 5-year strategic plan to discuss after all!

The CIO didn’t say a word. After a long awkward pause, the VP of Enterprise Operations said “I don’t think that is the best use of our time. Don’t you want to give us input on the slide deck we just reviewed?”

“If I may summarize your slide decks, then you said you want to deliver more value to the company, faster, with higher quality, lower costs, happier employees, and more satisfied customers. Is that close to correct?” asked Elliot.

“Yes.” replied the CIO.

“Fantastic.” said Elliot. “Then tell me, how much value are you delivering now? What is your quality now? How happy are your employees now? Your customers?”

Elliot continued, “Don’t worry. If you still want to work with my consulting company after this meeting, then we will complete a full current state analysis to answer all those questions. But let’s start with a really basic question. How fast are you now? One of the best ways to answer the question is to find out what is the oldest ticket in your ticketing system. Boats don’t go fast with anchors stuck in the sand. Your speed (Delivery) is defined by the oldest piece of work in your backlog. The same is true for your safety, quality, costs, and morale KPI’s.”

More silence. Only one person had any idea.

“Elliot, do you want me to answer now?” asked Leah.

“Yes, please.” answered Elliot.

“Okay.” said Leah flatly. “Our oldest Request ticket is 3 years, 2 months, and 16 days old.”

Time to defend the status quo.

The VP of North America IT spoke up “That isn’t fair to judge us on a Request ticket. It probably is from someone who wants a gold plated software system that we can’t afford.”

“Then why is it still in the ticketing system after all these years?” replied Elliot. “You said in your slide deck that you’re fully compliant with ITIL standards. Therefore dispositioning of the ticket should have happened long ago. However, in your defense, Request tickets are often debatable. What are not debatable are Incident tickets; meaning that something is broken and needs fixed. Again, you’re an ITIL IT team, so you likely have Severity Levels 1, 2, 3, and 4. Regardless of severity level, no Incident ticket should be older than a month, correct?”

More silence.

Leah spoke up “Our oldest Incident ticket is 2 years, 11 months, and 7 days old.”

“But, that has to be an extreme exception.” said the CISO.

Leah replied “Actually, I started making a Pareto chart of Incident tickets by month old. We have 41 Incident tickets over 35 months old.”

“What?!” exclaimed the CIO.

“Thank you, Leah.” said Elliot. “The first step in improving is always learning to see problems. Later, we will then learn to fix problems. For now, let me just tell you that this current state is fairly normal. We will use the root causes of these old tickets (symptoms) to teach you and your people how to solve the problems.”

“We habituate to old tickets for a lot of reasons. We procrastinate because the tyranny of the urgent always diverts our attention away from piles of old tickets. Fringe tickets which don’t quite fit our decision trees will leave people uncertain and then get ignored and finally forgotten. Also, in the moment a ticket may seem like a minor problem which we can put off until later.”

Elliot continued, “Here’s the thing. You need to earn the right to talk about strategy. The only way you earn the right is by developing your problem solving behaviors. First you will become fluent at solving small problems, like old tickets. Later, you will earn the right to solve bigger problems, like a multi-year strategy. If you can’t fix small problems in your tactics, then what makes you think you can solve big strategic problems?”

Backlogs of work are not just an IT concept. They may include small tasks, projects, programs, portfolios, and even multi-year strategic initiatives. With that in mind, what’s the oldest anchor in your backlog that is nullifying your strategy?


About the authors


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20 years of experience combining Behavioral Science with Continuous Improvement to produce powerful business transformations. https://www.linkedin.com/in/edward-blackman-0733a45/


This is an Agile Alliance community blog post. Opinions represented are personal and belong solely to the author. They do not represent opinion or policy of Agile Alliance.