(Posted on behalf of Michele Jackman, PM Consultant extraordinaire) I recently gave a UCSC presentation on the “art and science” of making SENSIBLE decisions under pressure. The greatest challenge is not the rational/analytical process. That’s the easy part. BOTTLENECKS frustrate PMs and create horrendous problems, excess costs, and poor subsequent decisions, resulting in unnecessary losses of time, energy and resources. Worse, we often know WHO they are going to be well before they become a problem. What’s the solution? A “backward planning” view and sponsor meeting might save the day (more on this below).
There are two general types of bottlenecks: Deliberate bottlenecks ( the mean spirited), and Well intentioned Bottlenecks ( untrained) . In the first category are the ego driven reptiles, the political, and the passive aggressive. The Dilbert cartoon memorializes this group. They have to be faced and conquered! More on that later!
More prevalent are the uninformed or untrained They are a bottleneck, often without any authority or control over delays. They may even be victims of “bureaucratic hyper-vigilance”, also known as “blind fear” of losing one’s job! The irony here: they often do lose their job! Oh well. Did we really warn them?
Consider this. A window of opportunity is missed, NOT because the product development schedule is delayed, but because the person giving the okay is missing one line item and delays its release. Or, from a well meaning bottleneck- “Hey, I was never asked about this: “. Could be pure ignorance, or a desire for input.
And the deliberate one: Why should I do this for you?
Bottlenecks spring from one main source– team decision roles and authority are not clear, nor are there consequences for delayed action. Unclear roles encourage silo thinking, or poorly defined cross team coordination.
On one telecommunications project, the test engineer had 14 projects due on the same day. Ironically, she had a two hour mandatory meeting on schedule issues. What a perfectly designed bottleneck! A bottleneck by definition creates stress and narrow thinking. If you;re a PM, you need to deal with them. But how?
1) Use backward planning. Stop, Look, and Listen ahead for potential bottlenecks BEFORE they choke your project to death.
2) Ask: What else is going on at the same time? -with this division, unit, in this person’s life? Test your schedule estimates and timing against the reality of multi-tasking.
3) Offer solutions, trade-offs, help with prioritization
Hold “Bottleneck Prevention Meetings” with sponsors who have power.
What about Type #1— the ones we fear, avoid, let control us. Yell STOP! And get help. Focus on organizational values, business plans , the big picture. Negotiate from a position of strength not FEAR. Get others involved if you “slay a dragon”.
Most important, build bottleneck management into your risk factors or schedule, and budget your time so you can prevent them.
Think about the ways that you have dealt with “bottleneck issues.” Share this information with others PMs for your mutual benefit. Here’s a conversation guide for a PM Bottleneck support meeting:
- What or who was it? (No real names please – just imitate their quirky behaviors and we’ll know who they are . . . )
- How did you deal with it? (Good, bad or ugly, other PMs can learn from your experience.)
- What was the consequence of not dealing with it sooner? (And COULD you have dealt with it sooner? Sometimes crisis builds consensus, and you just gotta wait for the crisis.)
If all else fails, there’s always a bottleneck on a nice cold beer that can make a tough day of project management seem like a vague memory. I recommend Corona with a lime!