Executive Summary: Leading People Through Periods of Unplanned Demand

Published: 01 February 2011 ID: G00211043

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When facing unplanned increases in demand, effective IT leaders get optimum performance from their people using a strategy of supplementing existing resources. This approach expands IT's capacity and capability to adapt to inevitable change.


CIOs must develop strategies to respond to the spikes in unplanned demand that plague IT. With IT environments becoming leaner, this means sustaining critical priorities while adapting to additional work requirements. The problem for many CIOs is that they may already be operating at full capacity when unplanned demand occurs. Focusing on the workforce aspects of unplanned demand, we provide strategies for balancing existing work commitments with those that are new and unexpected.

This report addresses the question, How do effective IT leaders get optimum performance from their people when facing unplanned increases in demand?

“Leading People Through Periods of Unplanned Demand” was written by members of the CIO workforce management research team, led by Heather Colella (research director), assisted by Diane Berry (research vice president).

We would like to thank the many organizations and individuals that generously contributed their insights and experiences to the research, including:

  • The contributors to our interviews and case studies.

  • Other Gartner colleagues: Gloria Adler, Steve Bittinger, Rebecca Crane, Jim Hocker, Bill Link, Alessandro Misiti and David Pack.

  • Other members of the CIO workforce management research team.

Executive Summary

Some IT organizations have found ways to respond to the inevitable increases in unplanned demand—controlling if not totally preventing their adverse effects with new strategies. Effective leaders take their people through these unplanned spikes in a manner that sustains workforce engagement. They understand that the workforce must bear much of the responsibility of excessive workloads.

Acknowledge the problem

Many leaders do not know the volume of unplanned demand in their areas of responsibility, the degree to which they can control it and the impact it has on both the workforce and their personal credibility. By acknowledging the problem, leaders position themselves to prevent the adverse effects of unplanned demand and to respond appropriately when they do occur.

Spikes of unplanned demand typically lead to shortages of some IT skills and surpluses of others, unbudgeted staffing, cost overruns and unmet IT deliverables (from service levels to project outputs). Leaders who simply acknowledge the existence of unplanned demand are better prepared to implement prevention and contingency plans, and to procure additional resources.

Acknowledge the causes and effects

Recognizing the causes and effects of unplanned demand—and fixing them—is the second stage of acknowledgment. A cause might be the inaccurate work estimates that often underlie changes in planning, whether too optimistic, too pessimistic, uninformed (due to inexperience or lack of historical data), or a response to pressure from above. Unrealistic budgeting and, in lean times, cushioned budgets designed to anticipate unplanned demand cannot work. The solution is to improve the estimating process.

Acknowledge what you can and cannot control

The final stage of acknowledgment concerns the things an IT leader controls. After identifying the areas they control, IT leaders must ensure that their plans hit the mark. This helps prevent the adverse effects of unplanned demand.

The figure below presents the framework for the report. Once IT leaders complete the three stages of acknowledgment, they can work on preventing the adverse effects of unplanned demand, and if prevention is not possible, they can develop a response.

Figure 1. Report framework
Research image courtesy of Gartner, Inc.

Source: Gartner.

Prevent the adverse effects of unplanned demand

Given the disruptiveness of unplanned demand, IT organizations typically use the following prevention strategies:

  • Communicate awareness of environmental change, from the less predictable changes to those that are probable.

  • Set up a governance process of demand management to better control the internal elements of demand planning, since lack of control stymies the search for talent and skills.

  • Build an integrated workforce of full-time employees and contractors to mitigate the most damaging effects of unplanned demand.

  • Tap into external multisourcing of talent and services, coupled with internal skills development.

  • Control the evolution of unplanned demand with leadership empowered by governance processes, and bring cross-functional leaders together frequently. In addition, set up an overall resource planning governance committee so that each resource area can develop and allocate people to meet current and future needs.

Respond to unplanned demand

With prevention strategies for unplanned demand well established, a quick and effective response to inevitable fluctuations in demand becomes an organizational core competency. To address limited but unavoidable unplanned demand, some prevention strategies can be translated into actionable, operational initiatives. Other response strategies include the following:

  • Open-door communication between IT leaders and those directly involved in meeting demand.

  • Time off in quieter periods to compensate for time lost during spikes in demand.

  • Fast and effective onboarding to help those who join a reactive workforce become productive as soon as possible.

  • A resource management process aligned with the sourcing strategy. This entails well-run tactical resource allocation planning that bridges supply and demand. The activities and assignments of the workforce, including contractors and new hires, are tied to work requirements of the IT strategy. A resource management role helps IT leaders get through the biggest challenges of unplanned demand.

  • A policy of keeping union representatives on board, especially important if the flexibility to straddle long-established demarcation lines is a factor in addressing unplanned demand.

© 2011 Gartner, Inc. and/or its Affiliates. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction and distribution of this publication in any form without prior written permission is forbidden. The information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of such information. Although Gartners research may discuss legal issues related to the information technology business, Gartner does not provide legal advice or services and its research should not be construed or used as such. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof. The opinions expressed herein are subject to change without notice.

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