Are You a Bottleneck? How Founders Can Limit Their Company Growth

and how to stop

Photo by Laura Mitulla on Unsplash

I spoke with a founder a few days ago about workflows and priorities and how to coordinate with a growing team. These are natural questions that every startup faces when they are adding people and figuring how best to do their work.

In the beginning, it’s easy. The founder(s) do everything. There are only a few people, so it’s easy to coordinate who does what. Inevitably, the CEO takes on a lot of the finances, legal and other operational tasks, but they probably also have a hand in shaping the product and touching sales and marketing and maybe they are even involved in technical aspects of the business.

Suddenly the CEO is spread too thin and needs the team to take things off their plate. The team might be happy to do that, but everyone has learned to come to the CEO for at least a light touch on most things.

Even in a small team, a learned dependency can appear. There’s one person who seems to know all the answers and own all the relationships. That person tries to unload tasks, but work is so intertwined, it’s hard. The person assigned the task doesn’t have all the information they need to complete it, so they go back to the leader for more information and it ends up being more work than if the leader had just done it themselves in the first place.

Sound familiar?

Most of you will recognize this as the cost of training someone new to work with you, it’s an investment, but what if that’s the dynamic you find yourself in across the entire company. I have good and bad news for you: YOU are the BOTTLENECK in your company.

If you complain that people keep coming to you to make decisions or to know what to do, they are not the problem, you are. You’ve taught them to do that (and I would further guess that you like to feel needed in this way, whether you are aware that you do or not). But now it’s breaking down, either you can’t get it all done or maybe you can’t even get to the most important things that you need to do to impact your business.

Some mentors might lob a suggestion at you from the sidelines, “learn to delegate” or suggest you get an executive assistant, and maybe that helps a little, but the problem grows. When you take on the job of knowledge repository or decision maker instead of empowering the people you work with to work without you, you make yourself the bottleneck to company growth. If you don’t check the problem in time, it may be the way that you as the leader are the ultimate limiting factor on the business itself.

The learnings we have about bottlenecks comes from the Theory of Constraints which tells us that a bottleneck determines what the overall throughput or production capacity of a system is. This is what I mean when I say if you as the CEO are the bottleneck, you are limiting the capacity of the entire organization. The company can only produce outcomes at the rate that you can take action because most if not all final work produced flows past you or touches you in some way.

Knowledge work is like a factory in this way, and when factories identify a bottleneck on their factory floor, they do whatever they can do reduce that bottleneck, even if it’s less efficient than however the work was being done before, because it increases the capacity of the entire company when you increase the capacity at the bottleneck. In factory work, you might repurpose old machines, prioritizes shifts at the bottleneck, etc. It’s different for knowledge work, but the cures are straightforward — documentation to stop being the repository of knowledge or relationships, and heuristics (also known as simple rules) to empower decision making. Let’s take them in turn.

Documentation is clear enough, but it requires discipline. Updating work boards with new tasks, updating client files with the lastest notes, uploading customer interview notes, documenting your code base, it all takes time. It can seem like a lot of time misspent in a fast-moving startup, but it does allow for everyone else on the team or in the company to pick up where you left off, jump in to help, or repeat the process. If you’re training someone new to do your job, the first step is to document it. Hopefully you do that work, but I’ve seen many people be hired only to start documenting the job in a way the person they took over from never did. What a gift.

If you’re in a company where you are the bottleneck, start documenting the first process you want to offload, even if you get someone else to help you document it, get it down on paper. It’s the first step in asking someone else to do the job without you. The documentation will miss things that you’ll add and it will change over time, but you can request that the person who owns the process also owns the documentation of that process. Make a company habit and you will be glad you did.

The second way to stop being a bottleneck is to create heuristics, sometimes called simple rules, that help people make the right decisions without you. Southwest airlines has one that I always remember- “we are the low-cost airline”. As an employee at Southwest, this simple rule helps you act independently more often to fulfill the company’s mission and probably be right without having to ask a lot of questions.

Another example is Nordstorm’s famously generous return policy, it helps employees know how to deal with most customers without oversight. Think of these “rules” as guiding principles. Of course there will be exceptions to the rule, but if you are in leadership, giving people guidelines let’s them proceed with the vast majority of decisions and leaves you to deal with the possible exceptions and grey areas where your leadership is best utilized.

If you are the leader and you are feeling more taxed than the people around you, consider ways in which you are the bottleneck to getting more work done. What work could be done by others, even if it were slower? What decisions could others be in charge of, even if they sometimes get it wrong? How can you get out of the middle and let your company soar? With this awareness and these tools, you have everything you need to get out of your own way.


Are You a Bottleneck? How Founders Can Limit Their Company Growth was originally published in The Startup on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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