Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 5;   February 4, 2015:

Bottlenecks: I

by

Last updated: January 17, 2021

Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs?
The Niagara River and cantilever bridge

The Niagara River and the Niagara Cantilever Bridge. The turbulence of the river is due, in part, to the sheer volume of water that must pass through the narrow gorge. So it is with bottlenecks in organizations. When the volume of work that must pass through the "bottleneck" exceeds what the bottleneck can handle, turbulence and chaos are the results.

Photo by Detroit Publishing Co., courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

Some people are bottlenecks. We wait for them to decide, or to approve activities or efforts that truly are beneath their station. They and they alone can report on certain activities. They and they alone can represent those activities in meetings. Their calendars are so full that we have trouble scheduling meetings. In frustration, we call these people names: "micromanagers" or "nanomanagers" or something worse.

But labeling them doesn't solve the problem or offer much of a path to understanding it. As their supervisors, if we want to solve the problem, or as subordinates, if we want to work around it or avoid it, we'll do much better if we understand it.

Let's begin with examples of reasons why some people cannot release these tasks to the care of their subordinates or staff or team members.

Pseudo-parental attachments
Some bottleneckers attained their positions by completing particular projects successfully. They maintain emotional attachments to those projects — attachments not as strong as what parents feel for children, but in other ways analogous. Their concern for the welfare of these "child-projects" makes them reluctant to release them to others. Release, if it comes at all, can be incomplete. Thus, the bottlenecker remains responsible for work that can be appropriately delegated to others.
Anxiety
Anxiety about the success of efforts that are properly the responsibility of subordinates need not derive from pseudo-parental attachments. It can arise, for example, if the bottlenecker has a mistakenly low opinion of the capabilities of the person responsible for the effort. Or the bottlenecker might fear that the effort could be at risk for other reasons, such as poor design or poor planning. Whatever the source of anxiety, instead of addressing it, the bottlenecker uses the concern to avoid entrusting the effort to the subordinate.
Political ambitions
Some activities Labeling people as micromanagers
doesn't solve the problem or
offer much of a path
to understanding it
inherently confer political stature on those who represent them to other parts of the organization. An example is reporting on the status of the development of a new product that's expected to form a future raison d'être for the company. Other examples are negotiating for funding or justifying requests for funding increases. Bottleneckers often strive to be the public face of such efforts, even if they aren't actually involved in the performance of the work itself.
Addiction to feeling needed
Although most of us feel good when others express appreciation for our work, some people measure their own self-worth almost solely in terms of how others see them. For these people, maintaining ownership of activities that others value is more than desirable. It is essential to a definition of self-worth. In a real sense, they can become addicted to feeling needed, and incapable of delegating detailed responsibility for efforts that others regard as important.

We'll continue next time with an exploration of tactics for dealing with the bottlenecking pattern.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Bottlenecks: II  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenhZLYrRMtUnyjppRsner@ChacotqZAFalhYTBMgJWoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Ancient stairs at ruins in CambodiaThe True Costs of Indirectness
Indirect communications are veiled, ambiguous, excessively diplomatic, or conveyed to people other than the actual target. We often use indirectness to avoid confrontation or to avoid dealing with conflict. It can be an expensive practice.
The Samuel Morse Telegraph ReceiverRemote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: III
Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings (meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or video) can make life much easier for everyone by taking steps before the meeting starts. Here's Part III of a little catalog of suggestions for remote facilitators.
A speakerphone of a type in common use for teleconferencesPet Peeves About Work
Everybody has pet peeves about work. Here's a collection drawn from my own life, the lives of others, and my vivid imagination.
Admiral Edward Ratcliffe Garth Russell Evans, first Baron Mountevans of ChelseaGuidelines for Delegation
Mastering the art of delegation can increase your productivity, and help to develop the skills of the people you lead or manage. And it makes them better delegators, too. Here are some guidelines for delegation.
Illustrating the concept of local maximumFalse Summits: II
When climbers encounter "false summits," hope of an early end to the climb comes to an end. The psychological effects can threaten the morale and even the safety of the climbing party. So it is in project work.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A home officeComing January 20: Anticipating Absence: Quarantine and Isolation
When the pandemic compels some knowledge workers to quarantine or isolate, we tend to treat them as if they were totally unavailable. But if they're willing and able to work, even part-time, they might be able to continue to contribute. To make this happen, work out conditions in advance. Available here and by RSS on January 20.
stacks of gold coinsAnd on January 27: Cost Concerns: Comparisons
When we assess the costs of different options for solving a problem, we must take care not to commit a variety of errors in approach. These errors can lead to flawed decisions. One activity at risk for error is comparing the costs of two options. Available here and by RSS on January 27.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenhZLYrRMtUnyjppRsner@ChacotqZAFalhYTBMgJWoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.