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The Curse of the Information Bottleneck

I want to address an attitude, or really a method of functioning, that I’ve seen a lot of employees adopt over time – and that is the tendency to be an information bottleneck within their organization.

This is something I run into everywhere, but I’ll lay out an example I experienced firsthand:

After an initial round of interviews with a certain enterprise to determine my technical qualifications and whether I was a good cultural fit, the manager asked me to come back to meet with the business line folks I would be working for.

Now, these people were not particularly technical, and they had no idea how to scale the project they were doing. This meant the project I was there to help complete stretched out over multiple years. 

Long story short, I wound up taking over an already-occupied position from Lara, a manager at the enterprise, and it became her responsibility to train me on her processes.

Shortly after we started training, it became apparent that Lara did not document anything. Although she regularly clocked something like 80 hours a week, she did not have any of her processes documented in any way. She just kept it all in her head, meaning that whenever there was a fire to be fought, she woke up at two in the morning and did it, even though she had a husband and young children at the time. That seemed crazy to me. 

But because my interpersonal skills were fairly good, Lara and I slowly started to get along. She didn’t feel threatened by me, really, and I was able to glean what little bits of information I could from her. Because she didn’t do things quite the same way twice, there was some inconsistency. 

More than the disorganization, though, Lara was an information bottleneck – she didn’t ever share her knowledge with anyone around her. So, whenever there was a crisis, the company always had to call her – and there are many problems associated with that, including:

  1. You become a single point of failure. I hate to use this analogy, but if you get hit by a bus tomorrow, that’s a big problem. 
  2. You can’t ever take any time off, so you’re always going to be burnt out. Because if no one else can do your job, you have to work pretty much 24/7.

Unfortunately, Lara never changed her ways, even when she was promoted within the organization. During my time there, I wound up interfacing with her on a lot of things. She was constantly working 24/7, and I got emails from her at four in the morning, which told me she was probably sitting at her desk still working. Lara continued to act like an information bottleneck, never talking to anyone or documenting her processes, and getting very, very irritated whenever I or people in my program made requests such as, “Hey, we need to document our requirements, so we know what we’re doing.” 

In reply, Lara would say things like, “When I hear ‘document requirements,’ I hear that this is going to take eight weeks longer than I want it to.” 

My team knew that it would really help to acknowledge all the things that we needed done and have everyone agree to sign off on them so that when things went wrong later, we could go back to those requirements to make sure we were hitting some sort of success criteria.

What I noticed in Lara that I notice with a lot of employees who function as information bottlenecks was a distrust of documentation – they don’t want to change how things get done because their processes work for them. And whenever there’s a crisis, they know they’re going to be the one getting the call, which makes them feel important. 

And on some level, it makes sense that employees and their departments act like their own little kingdoms because they are far away from the central government or hub of the enterprise. It only becomes a problem when those in charge of those kingdoms get the idea that information bottleneck behavior is a way to deflect stress, or soothe their fears, or keep their jobs.

Changing that behavior is hard for certain people. The best summary I ever heard for this type of information bottleneck attitude went like this:

“I want to be a firefighter someday. And I want to keep a fire extinguisher in my trunk so that if I see a car burning on the side of the road, I can pull the fire extinguisher out of my trunk and say, ‘Step aside!’ and save the day.” 

I swear to God, people that want to hoard their information and not give it out just want to be the heroes. They want to be able to come in and say, “Step aside, I got this.” It’s an ego thing.

What I find, and it’s somewhat counterintuitive, is that the strategy for getting out of information bottleneck behavior is like a Chinese finger trap. You have to go against instinct and quit struggling, working with the contraption to free yourself. The fact is, employees are actually much more valuable to their organization if they teach their people everything they know, if they can build repeatable processes, and if they can teach several people under them or beside them how they do their jobs. 

Fair warning – the people who are causing the communication disconnects are going to fight you at first. But one of the hallmarks of StarSpring’s work is getting all those different parties together, getting them to agree on common ground, understanding what the big picture is, and moving forward as a unit. And one of the first things that we do is say, “I’m not trying to take away anyone’s job, I’m here to free up some of your time so that you can do your job more effectively and with less stress, because that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do – we’re trying to build tools that make people’s lives easier so they can do even better work and feel more fulfilled.” 

This sharing of processes and information not only allows for easy-to-follow procedures in times of crisis when the individual might not be in the office, but also continuity, so that the employee can take vacations, which is super important. They can take a sick day or spend some time with their family and recharge so that their brains aren’t complete mush. 

And, yes, it does allow you to hire other people to do your job, especially if you have well-documented checklists and processes for people to follow. If you can show that you can not only build repeatable processes, but mentor and manage people through those processes, you become much more valuable to your organization, and your chances for success and moving up are much higher. 

All this means that the tendency to hoard their stuff is really short-sighted on the part of the information bottleneck employees who do it, because their company is never going to want them to advance. The information hoarder is now a point of failure in a critical process. Their superiors are going to want to keep them where they are forever – or at least, management in an overworked organization will. Overloaded organizations won’t want to risk a speed bump, so they’ll opt to just leave things the way they are. I see it happen all over the place, no matter the industry or the organization’s goals. 

There are information bottlenecks like this everywhere, and it helps if you’re able to coach them to realize that there are better ways of operating, so they don’t get completely burnt out. But I find that that personality type is a little bit harder to get through to, which often leads to a necessary step towards proper business alignment, which often looks like moving that person to a more advantageous place elsewhere in the company.

Do you have information bottlenecks somewhere in your organization? Communication breakdowns can be a major detriment to any enterprise – get in touch with us to get your people and systems talking to each other again.