A couple of days ago we decided to make some changes to the sign up form on our website. The task wasn’t that complicated, so there were only a few people involved. After the designer finished his part of the task, it was the programmer who had to take over and then pass the task forward. The programmer got caught up with his own personal issues and as a result we couldn’t get this tiny project done within 3 days.
This is an example of a so-called project bottleneck. It is a part of your project (a person or a process) that causes the entire project to slow down or stop. More often it is illustrated as a traffic flow where the speed of cars is dictated by the roadway capacity.
In a project it could be either a designer who got stuck on a mockup or a client who takes days to give feedback. Also, it could be a process which doesn’t depend on your team per say: for instance, it takes time for the Apple Store to review your app. Whatever it is the bottleneck effect can be destructive: your deadline has to be pushed back, your costs increase and your results decrease.
How do you prevent a bottleneck effect or at least reduce it?
1) Question yourself while planning
What could cause a bottleneck effect? What is the project’s weakest link? We tend to see things in a overoptimistic way forgetting to take into consideration possible challenges. Think about what’s going to happen if someone gets sick or let’s say disappears. Spending an extra 30 minutes to think about these seemingly obvious things can save you tons of time in the long run.
2) If you don’t have a plan B, you don’t have a plan at all
If you have only 1 designer, find someone you can approach in a case of emergency. While planning make sure to consider time for possible unpredictable situations. They are going to happen anyway. Make sure you have interns or employees who can undertake simple tasks and save you some time for more urgent and important things. That’s exactly what we did in our company and this helped us to free up some time for ourselves.
3) Always be aware of the big picture and interconnections in your team
How do people depend on each other in your team when it comes to performing tasks? Who is responsible for the most important and complicated tasks? The best way to get a bigger picture is to make it visual. A project network diagram is the most common thing used to picture all the connections between tasks. We use Casual for this purpose. Also you should always discuss this during meetings to make sure that everything is taken into consideration. Often you might not even know that someone in your team is waiting for another team member to act.
4) Regularly update yourself on your teammates’ workload
It’s extremely important to keep the workload of every team member transparent so that you can always say what’s currently on everyone’s plate. We personally use google calendar for this purpose. We ask everyone to highlight their workload in the calendar so that we can see weak spots immediately. Consider using a project planning tool like Casual for managing your team's workload.
5) Be flexible
Plans always keep changing. Try to review your current state as often as possible, at least once a week. If there is a bottleneck, start resolving the problem as soon as possible. Postponing acting on it while hoping that things will improve is a bad decision.
To sum it up, let me share the situation that happened in our friends’ company where the bottleneck was the team leader himself. He was the last one to give a green light to any process so a lot of people would be waiting for his decisions. The solution was pretty simple: they hired an assistant whose salary paid off abundantly as a spike in productivity followed almost immediately.
What project bottleneck effect problems have you faced? Which techniques have you used to unblock them? Share your experience in the comments below.
About the author: Nick Nikolaiev is the Co-founder of Casual. He has been working as a digital project manager for more than 4 years.