At its most basic, a bottleneck is a block that prevents work from getting done. In a workplace context, a bottleneck directly relates to the handoff of information or approval that stops a project in its tracks.
Sound familiar? That’s because though bottlenecks happen all the time in our working lives, we’re not always aware of how we contribute to them.
In this post, we’ll focus on why bottlenecks occur within the flow of information from person-to-person, how this manifests at the management level, and how to keep your own and your team’s work from grinding to a halt.
Chances are, you’ve found yourself in some stage of a bottleneck. Perhaps you’ve been the one whose feedback is necessary for a project to move ahead, or vice versa, as a team member whose work can’t proceed until your manager or the project lead gives the go-ahead.
Some of the most common bottlenecks at work can arise in the following scenarios:
The impulse to hold onto a project, document for review, or task until you feel it’s airtight and ready for primetime is an understandable one. Sharing our work with colleagues can be a vulnerable step in the process of getting projects from the ideation phase to putting them into motion. After all, who doesn’t want to get it “right” at work, especially when a deliverable is contingent upon the contributions of other people –– and ones you manage, at that –– to succeed?
Alison Green of the popular Ask a Manager blog is quick to point out that being a bottleneck doesn’t mean you’re not a great manager (or teammate). One of the main reasons bottlenecks materialize in our work is a combination of uncertainty that the information is ready to pass along to others and investment in wanting a project to be done correctly.
So, how do you ensure the necessary details are best conveyed, without impeding the progress of a task or missing a deadline?
While we might find ourselves stymied at work awaiting the details we need to keep our projects moving, the silver lining to encountering bottlenecks in your work and workplace is the golden opportunity to review and change the way you have always done something. There are always different approaches to solving a problem –– and as many ways to settle on a solution. The first step, however, is identifying what needs to shift.
For Mari Triplett, Sr. Director of Packaged Goods at Fair Trade USA, the “aha” moment that she was causing a bottleneck arrived when she realized she was postponing the hand-off of small action items and documents where she needed her sales team’s input. The reason for delay? She wanted to ensure the accuracy of the information shared, and that there was enough context for her team to succeed. She also felt responsible for how the instructions would be received, especially when she felt she didn’t have enough time to properly introduce the tasks at hand or the project or document was still in draft form.
Fortunately, Triplett had been researching the use of video as a method to build trust and connection with prospects for her sales team so the prospect could familiarize themselves with the product, company, and the points of contact. While she trusts her team completely, sending a video message along with a task or document to review allows her to convey helpful details and general guidelines without the need to be too prescriptive on how her team completes the work. She realized video communication was a better way to share information –– and it didn’t require waiting for the next one-on-one or team meeting to execute.
"Before Loom, I would find myself waiting to hand-off tasks and projects, because I wanted to provide adequate context and guidance. Now, with video messages I record in Loom, I don’t have to wait for our team meeting that’s days away to brief my team. I can quickly create an intro to the document, task, or request in a minute, and share with my team to get started –– no more bottle-necking!"
Video messages have benefited her work and improved how she communicates information with her sales team in myriad other ways. Triplett now leverages Loom to:
Another benefit of adopting asynchronous video is minimizing the time spent preparing for and being in meetings. She now sends off a video message ahead of a meeting to better manage expectations for what the goals and desired outcomes are, which helps people stay focused and make the most of their synchronous time.
“I’m conscious of my team’s time and capacity. If I can minimize meeting time by delegating projects and documents in other ways, I want to do that.”
— Mari Triplett, Sr. Director, Packaged Goods, Fair Trade USA
Plus, she notes, video messages can be watched whenever you want, which adds to making the messages more approachable and accessible to her team.
In the world and work of sales, says Triplett, “everything is sprinting.” Now, when she needs to pass something off to her team, like an OKR spreadsheet, the voiceovers she provides along with each screen recording can help better manage expectations before a meeting, or in lieu of one –– for example, “don’t worry, I know these numbers look hard to achieve,” –– provide valuable context, and soften the overall takeaways with more nuanced comments than can be conveyed with written comments alone.
What’s the feedback been from the sales team? They appreciate getting to work sooner, and Triplett is no longer holding onto projects or waiting right up to the deadline to socialize them.
Among the reasons video messages have stopped bottlenecks:
Video communication has been a game changer for her and her team’s daily routine in general. Leveraging the connectivity of video messages when travel isn’t possible has been indispensable, too. “Because we’re externally facing, it’s been tough to not have the opportunity to travel to all of our clients right now during COVID-19,” Triplett says. “I can’t see myself ever going back to waiting for a one-on-one or to creating a more in-depth agenda for meetings.”
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