The unbottleneck hack

by Steli Efti

If you're a founder, or managing a team, you're probably overwhelmed by requests from people who rely on you for feedback, comments, input and approval. Every day, there's a new barrage of emails in your inbox, requiring you to respond, so that somebody else is able to do their job.

It can slow down your whole operation if other people in the organization are stuck in the bottleneck you created. Before you know it, you're a small bootstrapped startup team, moving as slow as a large corporation.

You need to get things done and get shit shipped. Speed is crucial.

What's more, if you keep your people waiting, it's demotivating and disempowering. Now you're not just a slow-moving bootstrapped startup, morale is also dwindling away and you're running low on that magic energy that makes startups spark.

Chances are it won't get to that point, since it's really an extreme case. But nonetheless, the problem is real. How do you solve it?

I'm sure you could hire a consultant who'd charge you and arm and a leg and then tell you: Empower people and give them more autonomy! Help them to grow into leaders. Place more trust in them!

All this sounds good on paper, but how do you actually do it?

How do you unblock a bottleneck?

I want to share a much simpler approach with you. You don't need to learn a new management technique or transform your personality: tell people to send you tasks with specific deadlines.

If you don't respond within the set deadline, they automatically have your permission to move ahead any way they see fit.

The deadline that works best for me is 24 hours (for urgent tasks) to 48 hours (for non-urgent tasks).

It's a simple system that you can start using right away. In fact, if you're super busy and stressed out, you could just copy & paste this and send it to your team members:

I realize that you sometimes require my input, feedback or responses and I often have been slow in responding. I've been thinking about how I can remove myself as a bottleneck, and here's what I came up with: 

From now on, whenever you send me an email that requires my input, response, feedback or comment, please send it to me at least 48 hours in advance.

(If it's urgent, shorten that deadline to 24 hours, but state so in the beginning of the email).

If I don't respond within the deadline, you have my full permission to move ahead any way you see fit.

What can you expect when you put this system in place?

There's a bunch of advantages to doing things this way, that we've experienced at Close.io:

  • Team productivity goes up.
  • There's less stress in your life.
  • Your team members will appreciate you a lot more.
  • Once this rule is established, people will adjust their expectations. They won't expect you to reply within four hours of receiving your email in the midst of a busy day. And if there's occasionally something really urgent, they'll now make it very clear that this urgently requires your attention.
  • You will make better judgment calls. Does this really require your input or not? It's now a lot easier to just say no, and let others figure it out.
  • You empower your team members to move forward and accomplish things when they don't hear back from you within a reasonable amount of time.

Overall, things move a lot smoother and happen a lot faster. Working together is more fun, and you'll achieve a lot more as a team.

I've shared this tip with many founders and executives, and have gotten a lot of great feedback on it. You can also check my podcast episode on "feeling overwhelmed" where I shared this tip with my friend and co-host Hiten Shah.

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