Tame the Project Backlog

Take charge of your backlog of unstarted projects.


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Your Challenge

  • Unmanaged project backlogs can become the bane of IT departments, tying IT leaders and PMO staff down to an ever-growing receptacle of project ideas that provides little by way of strategic value and that typically represents a lack of project intake and approval discipline.
  • Decision makers frequently use the backlog to keep the peace. Lacking the time to assess the bulk of requests, or simply wanting to avoid difficult conversations with stakeholders, they “approve” everything and leave it to IT to figure it out.
  • As IT has increasing difficulty assessing – let alone starting – any of the projects in the backlog, stakeholder relations suffer. Requestors view inclusion in the backlog as a euphemism for “declined,” and often characterize the backlog as the place where good project ideas go to die.
  • Faced with these challenges, you need to make your project backlog more useful and reliable. The backlog may contain projects worth doing, but in its current untamed state, you have difficulty discerning, let alone capitalizing upon, those instances of value. 

Our Advice

Critical Insight

  • Project backlogs are an investment and need to be treated as such. Incurring a cost impact that can be measured in terms of time and money, the backlog needs to be actively managed to ensure that you’re investing wisely and getting a good return in terms of strategic value and project throughput.
  • Unmanageable project backlogs are rooted in bad habits and poorly-defined processes. Identifying the sources that fuel backlog growth is key to long-term success. Unless the problem is addressed at the root, any gains made in the near-term will simply fade away as old, unhealthy habits re-emerge and take hold.
  • Backlog management should facilitate executive awareness about the status of backlog items as new work is being approved. In the long run, this ongoing executive engagement will not only help to keep the backlog manageable, but it will also help to bring more even workloads to IT project staff.

Impact and Result

  • Keep the best, forget the rest. Develop a near-term approach to limit the role of the backlog to include only those items that add value to the business.
  • Shine a light. Improve executive visibility into the health and status of the backlog so that the backlog is taken into account when decision makers approve new work.
  • Evolve the organizational culture. Effectively employ organizational change management practices to evolve the culture that currently exists around the project backlog in order to ensure customer-service needs are more effectively addressed.
  • Ensure long-term sustainability. Institute processes to make sure that your list of pending projects – should you still require one after implementing this blueprint – remains minimal, maintainable, and of high value.


  • 13 companies contributed to this research and wish to remain anonymous.  

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Get to Action

Start here – read the Executive Brief

Read our concise Executive Brief to find out how a more disciplined approach to managing your project backlog can help you realize increased value and project throughput.

  1. Create a project backlog battle plan

    Calculate the cost of the project backlog and assess the root causes of its unmanageability.

  2. Execute a near-term backlog cleanse

    Increase the manageability of the backlog by updating stale requests and removing dead weight.

  3. Ensure long-term backlog manageability

    Develop and maintain a manageable backlog growth rate by establishing disciplined backlog management processes.

Guided Implementation icon Guided Implementation

This guided implementation is a nine call advisory process.

    Guided Implementation #1 - Create a backlog battle plan

  • Call #1: Scoping call.

  • Call #2: Calculate the sunk and marginal costs that comprise your backlog.

  • Call #3: Survey the role that stakeholder influence, poorly defined processes, excessive customer service, and opaque capacity awareness play in the unmanageability of your project backlog.

  • Guided Implementation #2 - Execute a near-term backlog cleanse

  • Call #1: Choose an achievable target state for your near-term cleanse, establishing an effective and realistic target ratio of cancelled projects.

  • Call #2: Develop prioritization criteria for your cleanse.

  • Call #3: Develop a communication strategy to reduce sponsor resistance.

  • Guided Implementation #3 - Ensure long-term backlog manageability

  • Call #1: Review backlog management models and choose the one most appropriate to your organization.

  • Call #2: Configure and populate the Project Backlog Management Tool.

  • Call #3: Establish processes for backlog review and assign roles and responsibilities.

Onsite Workshop

Module 1: Create a Project Backlog Battle Plan

The Purpose

  • Gauge the manageability of your project backlog in its current state.
  • Calculate the total cost of your project backlog investments.
  • Determine the root causes that contribute to the unmanageability of your project backlog.

Key Benefits Achieved

  • An understanding of the organizational need for more disciplined backlog management.
  • Visibility into the costs incurred by the project backlog.
  • An awareness of the sources that feed the growth of the project backlog and make it a challenge to maintain.

Activities: Outputs:
1.1 Calculate the sunk and marginal costs that have gone into your project backlog.
  • The total estimated cost of the project backlog.
1.2 Estimate the throughput of backlog items.
  • A project backlog return-on-investment score.
1.3 Survey the root causes of your project backlog.
  • A project backlog root cause analysis.

Module 2: Execute a Near-Term Project Backlog Cleanse

The Purpose

  • Identify the most organizationally appropriate goals for your backlog cleanse.
  • Pinpoint those items that warrant immediate removal from the backlog and establish a game plan for putting a bullet in them.
  • Communicate backlog decisions with stakeholders in a way that minimizes friction and resistance. 

Key Benefits Achieved

  • An effective, achievable, and organizationally right-sized approach to cleansing the backlog.
  • Criteria for cleanse outcomes and a protocol for carrying out the near-term cleanse.
  • A project sponsor outreach plan to help ensure that decisions made during your near-term cleanse stick. 

Activities: Outputs:
2.1 Establish roles and responsibilities for the near-term cleanse.
  • Clear accountabilities to ensure the backlog is effectively minimized and outcomes are communicated effectively.
2.2 Determine cleanse scope.
  • Clearly defined and achievable goals.
2.3 Develop backlog prioritization criteria.
  • Effective criteria for cleansing the backlog of zombie projects and maintaining projects that are of strategic and operational value.
2.4 Prepare a communication strategy.
  • A communication strategy to minimize stakeholder friction and resistance.

Module 3: Ensure Long-Term Project Backlog Manageability

The Purpose

  • Ensure ongoing backlog manageability.
  • Make sure the executive layer is aware of the ongoing status of the backlog when making project decisions.
  • Customize a best-practice toolkit to help keep the project backlog useful. 

Key Benefits Achieved

  • A list of pending projects that is minimal, maintainable, and of high value.
  • Executive engagement with the backlog to ensure intake and approval decisions are made with a view of the backlog in mind.
  • A backlog management tool and processes for ongoing manageability. 

Activities: Outputs:
3.1 Develop a project backlog management operating model.
  • An operating model to structure your long-term strategy around.
3.2 Configure a project backlog management solution.
  • A right-sized management tool to help enable your processes and executive visibility into the backlog.
3.3 Assign roles and responsibilities for your long-term project backlog management processes.
  • Defined accountabilities for executing project backlog management responsibilities.
3.4 Customize a project backlog management operating plan.
  • Clearly established processes for how items get in and out of the backlog, as well as for ongoing backlog review.

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Onsite Workshops offer an easy way to accelerate your project. If you are unable to do the project yourself, and a Guided Implementation isn’t enough, we offer low-cost onsite delivery of our Project Workshops. We take you through every phase of your project and ensure that you have a road map in place to complete your project successfully.

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