Are You the Bottleneck?

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Water plopping out of a bottleneckIt’s 10 PM and one of your direct reports sends you the budget updates you’ve been waiting for. He’s spent all day and into the night working on them, trying to get them as close to right as possible.  You take a quick look at the spreadsheet and frown. It’s not bad but you feel like something is missing or they’re not as complete as you’d hoped for.  It’s not really telling the story you wanted. And the formatting is just ok, even if he did use the standard template.  So you write a quick reply that says, thanks for this, I’ll work on it some more tonight. And it happens over and over again with many of your direct reports.

If this is a scenario that sounds familiar, read on. In my work with all kinds of teams, I see lots of leaders who are getting in the way of their team’s greatness. How? By being the bottleneck.

Take the Bottleneck Test. True or False:

  1. There’s often a sizable gap between my expectations and what others deliver.
  2. It can be hard to prioritize because so many things seem important and need to be done well.
  3. It’s important to do things right, and paint a certain picture, and I don’t understand why others don’t see that.
  4. I almost always meet external deadlines yet often miss internal deadlines I create with my direct reports until they become critical or someone chases me down.
  5. I frequently want to improve on the work of others which results in time-consuming editing and stress before I will let most things be shared outside the team.

If you chose True for 2 or more of these, you may be diminishing your team’s ability to do great work. Yes, you, rock stars, I can hear you arguing with me from across the internet saying “there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do things well, I can’t help it if other people have low standards, or they don’t really know what it takes to be successful!” Yes, and let’s get this out of the way quick: your way of doing things is a way of doing things, not the way, and not necessarily the best way. It’s darn shocking isn’t it?

With strong teams, the symptoms of a bottleneck often appear as behaviors that leak out around the edges. By that I mean, people are outwardly waiting for you to let go of that spreadsheet  or get clear on roles and responsibilities but their actions say something else. They are moving on to the best of their ability, without you.

This may mean surprises (for you and/or them), false starts, and frustrations that show up in subtle ways. It may be that during the offsite retreat, everyone agrees to be on time and yet, as session breaks end, people are still talking outside or holding sidebar discussions even though the group discussion has started again. Deadlines are frequently “extended” for internal group work because no one really finishes on time and that becomes the norm. Discussions become belabored and frustrating as people ask you for clarity on certain subjects over and over again, in the course of many months.

So what can you do? Seek help.Seriously. Not that kind, well, maybe that kind. Have a frank conversation with your team. Bottom out on this.

One of the best teams I’ve helped with this spent two days getting clearer on who owns what, their leader agreed to go on a “hands-off” diet on almost everything for 60 days. Plus, the team agreed to call her on it and offer support if she fell of the wagon every now and again. By the end of 60 days, some amazing things were happening: the team made more progress on one of their key initiatives than they had in the 6 months prior, the amount of time spent working after hours went down by 2.5 hours a week per person, and when asked, most people said their team was on a path to being one of the better teams they’d ever been a part of.

Where are the bottlenecks in your world?

What part are you playing in creating or freeing up the bottlenecks?

How would you approach someone who might be creating a bottleneck and have a respectful conversation with them?


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