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How do I deal with a bottleneck boss?

Who, what, how, where, why. How to handle a bottleneck boss

Written by Rhona Aylward


Rhona is Deputy Everything Officer at Psoda, where she does everything except code. After starting life as a microbiologist she moved into PMO leadership roles around the world before settling in New Zealand with her family.

Welcome to the latest “Ask a project manager” blog. This week’s question is about how to deal with a boss that’s a bottleneck.

I’m a part time project coordinator/part time EA to a great boss who manages a team of 20 engineers. They’re all working on different projects and it’s my boss’s, aka my, job to update the various project managers.

Here’s the problem. My boss is a bottleneck. He digests, reworks and rewords every single thing multiple times. He also likes to make off the cuff decisions that he doesn’t tell either the engineers or me about. So when we’re questioned about where things are at. we often have no idea what the other person is talking about.

The result of this is that the status reports coming out of our department are woeful. They’re often late, incomplete, have out of date information or in one spectacular instance, completely wrong. I regularly have people emailing me in various states of annoyance having not had any progress updates for weeks or any acknowledgment of previous emails. Not only is it making us look incompetent, it’s impacting on the department morale.

Can you help?

Thanks for the question. That sounds like a really frustrating place to be!

Here are some techniques to try to deal with these issues:

Emails

The easiest one to take the heat out of, is the emails. It’s best to respond promptly even if you don’t have an update. Most people prefer to receive something rather than have their email disappear into the ether. Even if all you say is something like “thanks for your email, I don’t have an answer for you right now but I’ll get back to you by x with a response”. Just make sure you stick to the response time you gave, even if it’s another stalling email. A good way to make sure that you do that is to put a reminder in your calendar. People tend to be more willing to wait if they’ve received an acknowledgement of a request, even if it’s a “no new information at present” one, as they know that it’s in hand.

Status reports

Are you directly involved in collating the status reports, or do you need to wait for your boss to pass on the information?

If it’s the latter it would be worth suggesting to your boss that you take over the job of putting the status reports together. That way you get direct access to engineers and can make sure you get the information you need when you need it.

You just need to make sure that you don’t get overworked and end up being the bottleneck!

A good way to frame this with your boss is to say you’re noticing that his workload is getting bigger, it’s your job to help and support him and that you’d love to help by taking this repetitive task off his hands (even if you’re not). If he is unwilling to let you take over, you may need to be a little blunt, which brings me onto the next problem.

Communication

The best way to deal with the way your boss communicates is with a face to face meeting with him. You need to cite concrete examples of the problems you’re facing and explain the impact it’s having. When you’re having the conversation, try and frame it around the damage it’s doing to the department’s credibility. You can even consider saying something about the damage it’s doing to your boss’s reputation in the organisation.

Make sure when you do have the meeting that you present a few potential solutions to the problem. I know it isn’t really your problem to solve but it’s usually easier to get changes made if you present ready-made solutions. I’m sure you’ll have experienced your boss saying “leave it with me” and then nothing ever happens. This is a way to try and stop that from happening.

Some suggestions to put to him, if you haven’t already tried them are:

  • Implementing a daily stand up meeting. Use it as part progress session and part information sharing. The team say what they’re working on, highlight any bottlenecks and discuss what the next day will look like. The boss then shares anything of relevance, including off the cuff decisions.
  • Make the team’s status reporting day two days before the reports have to be submitted to the project managers. You don’t need to tell the team it’s two days before, but it gives you breathing room to make sure you’ve got the most up to date information possible.
  • Using an online PPM tool. That would ensure that all the project information is in one place and current. This would greatly enhance the quality of the project reports and make your job a lot easier as you wouldn’t have to chase everyone.
  • Have a regularly scheduled catch up with the boss. Make it the day before the status reports are due. You can then work through them together and make any changes he needs. Hopefully this will help with the accuracy of the reports coming out of your department.

Addendum 

A brilliant tip from Andrew Ball (@andrewball01):

Implement a decision log. The rule is: ‘if it’s not on the log, it was never made.’ I know it’s never that simple but you have to capture and codify stuff like this or it completely undermines your authority.

If he’s still resistant, you might need to ask him exactly how he wants you to handle things. You could start by saying “how do you want me to handle it when x is frustrated about our lack of response?”

 

If none of this works, then I hate to say it but you might just have to escalate things to your boss’s boss. After all, it’s in no-one’s best interests to have a failing department and that’s exactly what your boss will be doing if things don’t drastically change.

I hope that’s been useful.

There are likely a lot more suggestions people can make to help you with this problem, so if you have any ideas please feel free to leave them in the comments.

If you’d like a question featured in our “Ask a project manager” series, please do get in touch.

Psoda plug

If you’re looking for a tool to make sure your reports are timely, accurate and look great, then look no further than Psoda. You can sign up for a free trial by clicking on the big red button at the top right hand side of the page.

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