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I'm Just Too Busy

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Peter Vogel          
A few weeks ago I was a participant on a panel trying to answer questions about what being a consultant is like. Someone from the audience wanted to know how to handle the enormous workload that he was laboring under. I was about to launch into a long discussion about organization and time management when one of the other participants cut me off. "Raise your rates" was her response.
This was followed by a moment of profound silence -- at least on my part. When I started out as a consultant, my first assumption was that most of my time would be spent looking for work. In practice, I've had more work than I could really handle. My second assumption was that my current level of activity was a fluke and that it was only a matter of time before I ended up staring at the phone waiting for someone to call. What I heard at that panel was that my current situation was typical.
Of course, that was the situation back when I worked in the corporate world, too. All of the companies I worked for always had more work requested of the Systems department than we could possibly do. This led to the concept of "the backlog." The backlog was a list of all the things that the department had, in some sense of the word, committed to doing -- just not yet. At one company, the backlog for the department was several years in length. In other words, if we accepted no new requests (and all of our estimates were accurate), it would have taken three or four years for us to complete all the tasks we'd said that we might do. And, of course, our estimates were notorious for being too low.
This creates a certain amount of bad feeling among the department's customers. Customers have a constant feeling that the Systems department isn't working on "the right things" (that is, their request). People also tend to expect that items on the backlog will gradually move up the backlog until they reach the head of the list. Unfortunately, the Systems department is more like an emergency room than an assembly line. By the time some of the items on the backlog got to the head of the line, other, more important projects had appeared.
One of my bosses had an interesting way of handling this problem: Once a month, he locked all the other department heads into a room and wouldn't let them out until they decided what the Systems department should work on next month. A lot of political horse-trading went on in that room and, to a certain extent, we'd promote our own agenda through estimates and assessments. But, by and large, the process eliminated a lot of complaints about whether or not we were working on "the right things."
When I supervised a Systems department, I wouldn't let the backlog get longer than four months. My feeling was that by the end of that time, things would have changed so much that anything not yet done wasn't ever going to get done. At our monthly reviews, we crossed off the things we'd done and added the things we were going to do. If the powers that be wanted to force something onto the list that would take us out past four months, something else had to come off.
I wonder now if there wasn't a simpler mechanism: Just raise our rates. Even if it didn't lower the number of requests we were getting, it might have put some more money into the department budget. On the other hand, raising our chargeback rates might have tempted the other departments to go and hire some outside con-sultants to do their systems work.
You know, now that I think about it, that doesn't seem like such a bad idea anymore.