Bottleneck: little jobs and emotional friction

Thanks to JG.

A particularly troublesome breed of little job are things left undone that hold up the work of other people – a decision that needs your input (or for you to decide), a design that needs your approval, feedback to your team from a key meeting, or a training you need to hold before your team starts a new project.

We usually want to empower our teams to make decisions and get on with things – but we’re also afraid of what happens if something gets rushed, or isn’t fully checked before being launched… and of course it’s important that we’re thoughtful in our answers to colleagues questions, and that we give their the attention it needs or deserves.

But however honourable our excuses, being a bottleneck causes all sorts of problems:

  • It slows everyone down while they wait for you;
  • Knowing that people are waiting for us doubles the burden of the mental overhead and nameless dread that the undone tasks often bring us anyway;
  • It also creates frustration and emotional friction for team members who are waiting for us to get our act together and do what they need us to do – that is to say, the negative consequences of being

Some things that may help

  • As JG suggested, getting these little jobs out of the way early in your day can make you feel lighter and more empowered as you get into the important stuff – although this can backfire if your answers generate emails with further questions;
  • It’s often the case that the email you’ve been avoiding is a quick job after all;
  • Finding the right people to join your team enables parallel processing in your organisation – removing yourself as the bottleneck;
  • Helping your team become the right people is just as important. This will need training, which itself will need you to have…
  • Clear, well formulated and well communicated principles and policy about what to do in certain situations – as simple as an FAQ list, or a blanket decision like allowing all staff to spend a certain amount to fix a customer’s problem without checking with anyone – can help your team do their good work without waiting for you, making it easier tomorrow for everyone;
  • Recognising the problem, apologising and talking about bottlenecks – and asking for ideas to fix or mitigate them – is never a bad thing;
  • Giving away authority is often the right thing to do, as long as (1) you share key principles clearly (see above); (2) you keep an eye on what’s going on; (3) doing so will take less time than doing the job yourself, even if at the cost of additional short-term effort; (4) the cost of failure isn’t catastrophic (really, it rarely is).
  • It often comes down to trust – trusting that your colleagues can do it; trusting that their ‘good enough’ now is better than your ‘perfect’ later; trusting that the more you trust them and the more they get on with things, the better they’ll get.
  • Go back and read the one about Who’s Got the Monkey.

Project phase, organisation size and specialisation

A friend shared this great analogy* for how teams work at different project phases.

Early phase: Golfing Buddies (2-3 players)

In the early phase of a project you and a partner or two (if you have any!) do all the work. You do a lot of your work together with quite a lot of crossover, share tools, might carry each other’s golf bags. There’s camaraderie, little need for planning or job descriptions, and most things you face can be worked out informally as you go. You need to do the work of compensating for your weaknesses yourself.

Intermediate (small) phase: Basketball team (5+ players)

There are more players and each has a position and you start to benefit from specialisation but you interact a lot and in many ways are still basically interchangeable. Plans and strategy matter, but tactics are king. You’re fast and responsive.

Intermediate (large) phase: Rugby team** (15+ players)

The team is getting bigger. Everyone still plays together but there is definite specialisation and team members stop being able to cover each other’s positions. Communication and chains of command become increasingly important and plans become harder to change. Danger of silos and factions.

Mature (large) phase: American Football Team (40+ players***)

There is very deep specialisation and there are clear teams-within-the-team – whole sets of players can play in the same game but never play together. Planned plays and frequent stops for communication are the norm. Management and support structure becomes increasingly important – and expensive. Danger of suffocating bureaucracy.

*Results from Google (like this post on LeadStrategic) suggests that this analogy comes from Larry Osborne‘s Sticky Teams – Osborne also has ‘Track Star’ as a category for solo performers.

**My addition.

***I’ve been a bit fast and loose with the numbers on teams: basketball and rugby teams will have substitutes that take the number of players higher, and American football teams only field 11 players at a time, but have separate offensive, defensive and special teams that all play during different phases of the game.

Friction (2): emotional friction

This is a different kind of friction: the uncertainty, delay and discomfort that comes from lack of trust or understanding. Like bureaucratic or procedural friction, emotional friction slows us down and makes things more difficult than they need to be. It takes many guises:

  • The extra time we spend second-guessing and explaining ourselves because we’re worried someone will take what we’re saying the wrong way;
  • The time we spend crafting a treading-on-eggshells email to a customer or colleague or skirting around an issue;
  • The things that really need to be said that we avoid saying completely because we’re desperate not to offend, or can’t stand upsetting others (the relationship is too fragile to take it);
  • The energy we waste worrying about how we sounded or looked, or what people thought of us (whether or not anyone cared);
  • The work we lose (in terms of time and quality) to distraction frustration, disappointment, heartache, and hurt when trust breaks down;
  • The opportunities lost because we (or they) couldn’t listen or properly consider an idea because of the (noisy) emotional elephants in the room;
  • The energy loss that comes with dreading the next conversation / message / arrival at the office;
  • The knock-on damage to our health and other relationships (we’re snappy, distracted, less generous) that emotional stresses cause;
  • The small problems that grow way out of proportion to their importance because un- or mishandled as a result of emotional avoidance;
  • The decisions that get left unmade because they touch on painful issues.

Emotional friction has causes on both sides of any relationship (in intentions, words and actions, and how they’re perceived), and it usually needs teamwork to solve and avoid it.

So what, Sharky?

  1. Recognising emotional friction – in yourself and others – is the first step in being able to address and minimise it.
  2. Once you’re aware of the negative impact of emotional friction, you’ll learn to see it coming – to spot energy drainers, time-wasters, unpleasant customers as they enter your life – and politely say ‘no thanks’ at the door, because they’re not worth it.
  3. You’ll also better understand the value of enthusiasm, a positive attitude and healthy sensitivity to others (as opposed to technical skills) when you’re hiring or building partnerships.
  4. When emotional friction is bringing you to a standstill, recognising the emotional component (yours and theirs) can help you separate the problem from your feelings about the problem, taking out some of the heat making it easier to see a way forward. Talking about how your’re feeling can help.
  5. Understanding how vulnerable we are to emotional friction forces us to talk about it in our team, and be explicit about the culture we hope to build, and how we hope to get there – and to acknowledge that this takes a long time.
  6. Seeing the waste that emotional friction causes pushes us to be more direct in our communication, speaking frankly and cutting problems off early rather than living with the ongoing friction for months or years.
  7. Understanding the importance of how people (you!) feel eliminates any last excuses for sloppiness or rushed-thoughtlessness in the name of ‘busy-ness’ or ‘being professional’ and motivates you to invest in slack.

Starting line

Where’s the starting line for your project?

How good does someone need to be to…

  • Work for you?
  • Work with you?
  • For you to work for them?

What type of ‘good’ are you looking for?

It’s highly likely that the best contractor / employee / partner / donor / customer isn’t simply the cheapest / most available / one with the most money.

In most cases, a person’s qualifications will tell you little or nothing about what they actually have to contribute, or what they might drain from you and your team.

Taking the temperature

What do you do to keep an eye on how your team is doing – as individuals and a team?

A less-structured meeting (or part of a regular meeting) can really help: a chance for everyone to check in, say what’s going well and what they’re struggling with, to let off steam, to ask for and offer help, to say what’s on their mind, or kick around a new idea or two.

Super important. Super easy to push aside when things get busy – which is when you most need to know how everyone is doing, and to do all of the things above.

Seth Godin on recruiting: raise the average

That next person you hire – are you lowering the average, or raising the average? ‘Cause if you’re lowering the average of your team because you’re in a hurry, when are you going to stop lowering the average of your team? How low does the average of your team go before it’s over?

On the other hand, anytime you can raise the average of your team, it’s probably a smart move.

Seth Godin – Entreleadership Podcast, Ep. 266

This applies to technical skills, but I think it’s even more relevant to team culture.