Bottlenecks can have punishing consequences on projects—and their teams.
Whether the source of the logjam is a person, a process or a resourcing backlog, teams can get stuck in project limbo when the delay lingers. And when bottlenecks become the norm, team members can grow flustered and overloaded with a cascade of sudden tasks. According to a 2019 LinkedIn survey, 70 percent of employees say being overwhelmed with tasks is the biggest driver of stress at work.
“It can be challenging if you are in a group right behind the clog, getting completely flooded with things to do when the bottleneck is released,” says Nina Scarnici, PMP, associate director of project management, Publicis Seattle, Seattle, Washington, USA. “Bottlenecks don't only hinder the team's ability to move forward, but they can also affect team morale.”
Bottlenecks can also take a bite out of project ROI. Sometimes, that stems from budget-busting overtime when teams move from idling into working long hours once the bottleneck breaks. For other projects, every day that delays delivery to market means waiting longer for benefits. “When the break-even point is delayed, the payback period of the project is also delayed,” says Mehdi Sarsar, PMP, engagement manager, Capgemini, Paris, France. “That's why understanding the cost of bottlenecks and the impact on ROI is so critical to all sponsors, decision makers and project managers.”
For project managers, the way to spot and bust through bottlenecks before they put the project in jeopardy will vary depending on the source of slowdown.
The Bottleneck: Sponsor Silence
When a key decision maker is too busy or too indecisive to provide feedback in a timely manner, projects can stall indefinitely. “This actually happens very often for all sorts of projects,” says Ms. Scarnici.
Banish It: To solicit that coveted response from the project sponsor, it helps to first dig to the root cause of the delay, she says. If the sponsor is stretched so thin that focused attention is hard to come by, schedule a brief but honest conversation. Review with the sponsor which decisions truly warrant his or her signoff, then nail down the process for getting that response promptly. Will an email with an all-caps subject line do the trick? Is a short, in-person meeting preferable? How often should the project manager follow up and at what cadence? “The more the project manager can streamline the approval process, the fewer bottlenecks they'll hit,” says Ms. Scarnici.
—Nina Scarnici, PMP, Publicis Seattle, Seattle, Washington, USA
If the sponsor's slow response stems from disengagement, it might help to emphasize issues they consider most important, whether those are risk management, customer experience or budget control, she says. And drive home that the team's momentum—and morale—rests in the sponsor's hands, says Marivi Virtudes Briz, head of product development, global video unit, Telefonica, Madrid, Spain. “They need to know that some decisions are required, and if they are not able to make those decisions on time, the team and project are impacted.”
Often, though, reluctance to make a decision stems from anxiety around potential future risks. “Another way to help sponsors make a decision is to make them feel safe to do so,” says Ms. Scarnici. “Project managers should consider which decisions the sponsors would make independently and whether subject matter experts should be involved to help shed light on gray areas for the sponsors’ convenience.”
The Bottleneck: Procedural Pains
Changes in internal processes can create unforeseen roadblocks or redundancies and require extra work from team members. This can mean bottlenecks in the short term, even if the new process has long-term advantages.
Banish It: Program and portfolio managers can minimize the blowback from implementing new processes by piloting them on smaller, discrete projects first, says Ms. Scarnici.
But regardless of project size, once the bottleneck rears its ugly head, project managers should pounce to protect team morale and keep tasks moving. In an agile environment, that might mean using a visual tool, such as a Kanban board, to keep track of the flow, she says. A values-based analysis can also be helpful, to hammer home for team members that the short-term rework will be worth it in the end.
“Showing the numbers and measuring processes and chain processes may help to demonstrate improvements,” she says.
When a change results in frustrating rework, take time to consider whether the team itself is partially responsible for the bottleneck. “Whether it's work allocation, quality inspection, project monitoring or simply going through a to-do list, project managers and teams can often complicate processes that are easy to implement,” says Mr. Sarsar. “When that happens, the easiest way to make things right is to identify where you are wasting your time, streamline the work process and find opportunities to improve your workflow.”
—Mehdi Sarsar, PMP, Capgemini, Paris, France
The Bottleneck: Requirements Redo
When a late-breaking regulatory shift or change of requirements hits the project, the team can be engulfed in a flood of new requests that clogs progress.
Banish It: Early strategic planning can shed light on risks caused by new regulations or undefined requirements, says Ms. Scarnici. That early planning could extend all the way to an action plan, so the team can change course swiftly and not be stuck behind the bottleneck of rethinking the project plan from scratch.
Ms. Briz agrees, emphasizing that shifting requirements are hardly unusual in project management. “I suggest having a visual map of the workflow to identify possible areas of congestion or bottlenecks,” she says. When one segment encounters a potential bottleneck, the team can shift its energy elsewhere while the bottleneck is cleared or a workaround is mapped out.
—Marivi Virtudes Briz, Telefonica, Madrid, Spain
To prevent new requirements from choking a project's momentum in the first place, it also helps to revisit the organization's change control process, says Mr. Sarsar. And if one isn't in place, meet with the sponsor or project management office about establishing and communicating the process. “Then stick to it,” he says. Consistency breeds speed, as it's often deviations that create bottlenecks to begin with. PM
Spot the Stop
When it's difficult to zero in on the source of project logjams, a simple bottleneck analysis process can help identify—and resolve—the problem, says Mehdi Sarsar, PMP, engagement manager, Capgemini, Paris, France.
Visually map the process and workflow to spot congestion
Measure flow metrics on the system level to get a better overview
Adjust resource distribution to resolve simple bottlenecks, if possible
Set continuous bottleneck analysis to keep workflow stable and predictable
You Are Here (Still)
When project managers are the source of a bottleneck, here's how they can get out of their own way and keep things moving.
1 Response time is seriously lagging
When a project manager who typically responds to stakeholder inquiries within hours finds his or her response time is dragging to days, it's a clear red flag. Is the team unclear on some aspect of the project plan, resulting in an uptick in emails? A team meeting could clear up the confusion. Has the project manager been stretched across an unrealistic number of initiatives? It might be time to meet with a manager to discuss prioritization or reallocation.
2 There's only one problem solver
When the project manager is the only person whom team members feel comfortable approaching, it can be a sign of weak cohesion or a lackluster team culture. Addressing those issues head-on helps ensure the team can operate without the project manager playing middleman on every conversation and decision.
3 Rethinking every move becomes the norm
When project managers lack the right information or are working with vague details, second-guessing can slow decision making. To reverse that trend, revisit the project charter, schedule a meeting with the sponsor or comb through the business case. Having a rock-solid understanding of the project's direction and how it aligns with the organization's strategic goals is the only true way to move the project forward with confidence.