Rotting aura of a Bottleneck Superhero

Have you ever met a Bottleneck Superhero (BS)? I guess you can't tell as the term doesn't tell you anything. No surprise as I've just coined it for the sake of this blog post :> Yes, people who know me in person do know how I like naming things (or people) ;)

Hero of the (every) day

Ok, let's start with the description of such a "role model". Imagine a person (in a company / team / project) who:

  • has got the most knowledge / experience (relevant to the overall context) or just the "broadest" perspective (his/her knowledge is the most widely applicable)
  • has got practical skills & most likely has already proven them (at least in the eyes of the superiors) in action
  • is always eager to dedicate himself to any new task / job / topic - up for any action ("to save the day") that offers an opportunity to prove her/his superiority & expertise

... buuuuut that's not all yet.

In addition to the list above, BS ...

  • usually works alone (or surrounded with rather passive acolytes, who act as flatterers and worshippers), like a one-many-army, so no-one distracts her/him or slows the pace ...
  • sometimes even actively discourages giving tasks to other people ("I'll do it twice as fast & in a way that will rule out potential future re-work"), convinced that there's no-one else more suitable to save the world
  • in time, such a person tends to spend more & more time on maintaining its position of unique, critical expert (e.g. by always putting him/her-self in the centre of action of every discussion / thread / topic) than on actual, value-focused work

So, what now? Sounds familiar? Some would call such a person a "star player", but in fact I'd rather use the term "latent cancer".

BS vs Extras?

That's actually quite funny, but such people are quite frequently favoured (stupidly) by management -> it's so good to have a local equivalent of Chuck Norris, isn't it? Well, in fact negative consequences outweigh the good ones by far.

What we're facing here is a perfect example of a toxic bottleneck that not only restricts the overall productivity of whole unit, but also has a detrimental long-term effect in many different areas:

  1. effectively kills any empowerment in the unit - BS does all the interesting stuff, BS has to stamp mark of approval on each idea, BS discourages everyone else from being active - all of that with the connivance of the management: no wonder that everyone else just stops to care
  2. BS siloes knowledge in an exponential way - only BS knows how stuff made by BS works, by putting him/her-self always in the centre & excluding others, BS cuts everyone else off; (s)he could share it with others, but of course (s)he's always busy with "saving the world"
  3. BS is miles far from being transparent or predictable -> even if extremely dedicated, (s)he switches topics / tasks just too frequently, so you'll never know when something is done (excuse is always the same: "I always keep working on what's the most important"); even if very efficient, one person can't out-scale her/him-self to match everyone else's dependencies
  4. BS's "criticality" tends to corrupt him/her - make untouchable, enable to blackmail whole unit or even organization (usually "in silk gloves")

Cutting the ulcer

I've encountered such a situation many times already - bah, I've even followed the same anti-pattern myself (w/o seeing its ridiculousness, at least initially) - makes me feel ashamed even until now. Sadly, in majority of cases, there's a tacit overall approval (especially among people in charge) or (at best) significantly delayed (when the horse has already bolted). Whilst in fact there's just one cure & it has to be applied quickly and resolutely:

  1. Individual has to be spoken to - issue has to be clarified to him/her & (s)he has to be asked to stop this behaviour, very openly & explicitly
  2. Management (product/project/whatever) has to starve this person's BS instincts by treating him/her like every other person in unit - no one should feed the monstrosity, for everyone's good. I can't emphasise it much enough: message has to be public & very clear - there's no consent for such behaviour
  3. If it doesn't work, there's just one way out - to fire BS. As soon as possible & without any hesitation. It may sound crazy (like getting rid of MVP), but in fact this act clearly serves unit's (teams/projects/etc.) good, by eliminating egocentric attitude.

It's a team game, after all.

Pic: © maxutov -