Some of the most significant technology capability challenges we see - both in our M&A advisory work and our professional services engagements - don't involve technology at all. These can be the most resistant to change and difficult to diagnose .. but also most deeply impactful if you get things right.
I'd like to introduce you to a system bottleneck we affectionately call 'Tony': the Tony bottleneck is easy to get to know, and usually is someone that is pretty key to the business. They have been there the longest, know the most about the interconnected systems and are a fountain of valuable knowledge.
This person has work to do but is challenged in getting it done as they are constantly being interrupted and solving other people's problems. This is a system bottleneck that needs to be resolved.
In my experience most Tony's are friendly, happy to help people. They are often quite stressed and found working late to get their own work done. Tony's often end up doing the work for you as it's faster for them to do it than to teach. After all, we need the answer to this problem as fast as possible, don't we?
There are ways to solve the Tony bottleneck issue but you need to get to know Tony a little bit closer first, and determine what shape the bottleneck is so that you can take the right steps to resolve it.
Tony’s come in a few different forms but I’m going to discuss the 2 most common I’ve seen; Index Tony and Custodian Tony.
Index Tony operates like the index of a book, they know a whole lot about most things and are pretty helpful in the way that they share it.
Custodian Tony also has all the knowledge but shares it less readily. Faced with an issue they are more inclined to dive and sort it out without taking the time to share the knowledge of how. They operate in the darkness for efficiency's sake, or come in at the end to save the day (even though their bottleneck may have contributed to the issue).
Is your Tony an Index or a Custodian?
Index Tony can be identified by the type of answer they give to a question, we will call our questioning engineer Alex.
Engineer Alex: "Where do I make a change to the backend to have the desired effect x?"
Index Tony: "Someone wrote a confluence page about this. It's called Master Widget design document, here let me show you and we can talk through the implementation as it talks to 3 different systems and there are some gotchas".
Index Tony points people in the right direction and often sits with people until their problem is on the road to solution.
This might look like a good interaction for a tech lead but the issue is in the distraction. It's also a missed opportunity for self growth. Here is a short list of the issues;
1. Alex didn't know there was an old design document in confluence
2. Alex didn't know it's naming convention
3. Alex didn't come up with a solution to the problem
What could have happened instead
1. Alex (knowing the design principles) searched and found the right document
2. Alex designed a rough solution
3. Alex asked Index Tony for a time where they can get feedback on their design
This is minimising the distractions for Tony and also allows Alex to develop their design skills.
Index Tony can take many forms but generally they are the pointer to information. Identifying this is a good thing because you can now help Index Tony - and their team - with some new ways to work.
Custodian Tony is the keeper of knowledge, everybody’s shortcut to a problem solved, but who, unlike Index Tony, has less time to share the knowledge that they hold and is more inclined to just jump in and do it.
The profile of Custodian Tony sometimes quite likes being the centre of the knowledge, and deep down they probably also attribute value to the number of "problems" they solve for a colleague.
Your Custodian Tony might also think it's more efficient to solve the issues themselves, after all they know exactly where to go and how to solve it.
One other aspect of this profile is they have so much to do and are involved in so much that often they don't have the time to test very well and this can cause downstream quality issues which are sometimes worse than the original problem. But don't worry, they will also fix those problems really fast too, often without people even knowing.
You get a sense of the mounting workload this all can create.
Remediating Index Tony
Helping clear the Index Tony bottleneck comes down to a self-awareness mindset shift. We can help Index Tony to recognise when they are being a blocker and perform a little root cause analysis on the person asking the question. "Why weren't you able to find this information? How will the next person who asks the same thing find the information autonomously?".
Side note, a key part of this is not to encourage Index Tony to just shout the answer into the virtual ether aka Slack because 100% of all Slack messages are forgotten (ie Slack isn't a knowledge base). What we are looking for here is for knowledge transfer in a way that encourages team efficiency and personal growth.
Actions to continuously improve this interaction shouldn't be down to Index Tony to resolve. After all, Index Tony doesn't really know why other people don't know the things they know. Best to get the querier to make a change to the process to better empower the next person.
Remediating Custodian Tony
Resolving a Custodian Tony bottleneck tends to be more challenging. This needs some diplomatic conversations to help Custodian Tony see the opportunity that lies in sharing more of the knowledge they hold, and in using it to solve bigger and more interesting problems.
The rationale here is similar to the reasons why automated tests are good, ie it's not about making manual testers redundant, but about trying to make manual testers more impactful.
Having a second person stick like glue to Custodian Tony can be a good way to illuminate the knowledge held, with capacity to write things down so that workflow can be optimised, with some occasional coaching as well to "make haste slowly' and not be quite so quick in throwing issues out the door.
The target here is to change the mindset of Custodian Tony to one of Teacher Tony. For bonus points have Custodian Tony not touch the keyboard and mouse while directly addressing colleagues. This has the best change success rate but is also the hardest because they are all about speed of resolution. It's a target worth sticking at.
All of our Tony's are trying to do a good job and trying to add as much value as possible with the time they have.
The one common thing you can do with both is to challenge them to slow down sometimes. Occasionally things are critical and urgent and every minute counts, but most of the time the inconvenience has already happened. Slowing down to teach and resolve in a more robust way is more valuable when you consider the years and years of repeated process which will be performed, starting with a thoughtful conversation.
Look for opportunities to solve a problem once and get a repeated effect. For instance someone asks a question, could this question be asked again? Consider writing it down, that way you can point someone to the answer without having to repeat yourself. That investment of 15 minutes to write it down only needs to be read a few times before you are net-positive on your time. This is a key tenant of Automate and Chill (a CTO Labs special).
Complex Systems (not just digital systems) have a workflow, I visualise a big flow chart. A single person dependency is a bottleneck in that process which can only scale so much and represents risk to a business. In CTO Labs M&A work we specialise in identifying system bottlenecks in the technology, the processes and the people. Unsurprisingly the topic of this article comes up a lot in our line of work.
We're here to help find the risks, and also to help you work out what to do next.
Did this article get you thinking about a few of your own bottlenecks? Tap 'book a callback' below to hear more about what we can do to to help.