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How do you manage demand effectively?

Take a number?

You don’t manage demand.

You can’t manage demand.

It’s not a powerful question to ask because it’s not within anyone’s capacity to carry out.

When our customers line up and take a number to make their requests of us, demand simply is. Though we may have processes in place to manage our limited resources, we should never be confused that we’re actually managing demand.

As long as people have concerns to care for, there will always be demand. As long as technology can help take care of some of those concerns, technologists will never have enough capacity to take care of everyone.

Demand management and portfolio management

Demand management is a philosophical orientation toward IT governance, mostly about portfolio management.

As we inventory all the projects we might take on, we call that a portfolio. As we decide what we’ll do, set priorities and allocate resources (human, financial, equipment and other forms of capital), we call that portfolio management. It is an important and powerful management practice that aligns with the most basic constraints we face.

Where “demand management” enters into the picture, it represents a philosophical shift from our real constraint to the external market. IT claims to “manage demand” because our resources are always insufficient, and we know that we have to say “no” to some requests that come in. By saying “no”, we say we are managing [read constraining or governing] demand.

Only we’re not. The demand is still there. We’re just saying it’s beyond our capacity to cover. We put management-speak around our philosophy, perhaps so that it’s less confrontational or makes us feel better?

Fundamental mechanisms of demand

Rather than jump to the opposite extreme and suggest we stop saying “no”, let’s first make some assertions about demand and our capacity to handle it:

  1. IT resources are always limited, relative to demand
  2. Outside of strategic capital investments in IT, working to “keep the lights on” (email, hardware, software, infrastructure, service desk, phones, etc.) consumes much of the IT budget
  3. Customer needs do not go away just because we can’t handle all requests

You can't argue with fundamental mechanisms

You see, customer demand also originates in similar fundamental mechanisms: everyone needs help, they also have limited resources, and eventually if they don’t take care of their own concerns they start to suffer until they take action… and that action might not involve us in the way we prefer.

If you add to these the concern that rapid technology shifts overtake some IT professionals, causing them to gradually either 1) focus on smaller domains, 2) become generalists or 3) lose competitive advantages as the market drifts, it strains our capacity to consistently keep up with customer demand more every day.

As a result, a notion that we can manage demand seems both reasonable and attractive. It is important, however, to stay grounded in the fact that we can’t do everything and we aren’t doing everything… so if the demand is high enough, our customers will look elsewhere for the help they need.

Those environments where IT believes they manage demand but also work to prevent customers from going outside for help create “the perfect storm” for marginalizing the value of IT and prompting quick business responses to outsource the function.

How demand management impacts trust

I have written of trust in many other places. Remember for the purposes of this blog that we distinguish trust as “an assessment of our sincerity, reliability and competence to hold our promises […for as long as we need to].” I also shared the observation of a marketing expert who said they have been waiting for an IT project that has been three months from shipping for over 18 months!

It happens. It isn’t pretty. But what does it say for sincerity, reliability and competence?

If we believe the answer is demand management, and demand management ultimately means cutting back on the work we promise to do, then maybe we hope to increase trust by making fewer promises? That would make sense if it were the end of the story.

You see, if IT has a history of failing to deliver, we break trust… and if we make fewer promises, we lose opportunities to build trust. AND if we do both… we lose on both ends.

So what do we do?

The rational answer, it seems to me, is to first accept that demand management is a philosophical orientation. It is not right or wrong, but it shapes how we think and act with regard to our customers and our “competitors” (those to whom they turn when we say “no”, as we must).

Next we need to look for a more effective philosophy that focuses on what we CAN do.

Don't confuse this with the power of positive thinking...

We have to start by making make sure to hold our promises while ALSO making as many as we can keep. We make them clearly, and we work to build a new tradition with our customers of saying yes and delivering – consistently, recurrently and with optimal business value… all the time. Rinse, and repeat.

When we say “yes”, we don’t say yes to everything (which breaks trust), but yes to what we can do with our limited resources.

Let’s change the philosophy from “managing [governing or constraining] demand” to “managing [taking responsibility for] the value we produce”.

We can’t manage demand anyway… we can only manage the promises we make and what we deliver with the resources at our disposal.