Hurdling Roadblocks


We all encounter things at work that impede our progress. Having the skill to effectively deal with the roadblocks makes a big difference in your overall productivity. Will you get a reputation as a whiner or as someone who pushes through obstacles? In this week's column, Danny Faught offers help with two common types of roadblocks and gives suggestions for reducing the chances that any barricade will impact your schedule.

I'm working on a project that is littered with roadblocks, yet I'm still making progress. I'll share with you how I take a positive approach to clearing roadblocks and staying productive, even when I have trouble getting the things I need. Though the solution requires getting managers involved, I should point out that my role on the project is technical, not managerial.

Someone You Need Help From Isn't Helping You
There will be times when you'll depend on someone else's help to complete a task--for example, acquiring or setting up test equipment, creating network accounts, or fixing bugs that block your testing. When you ask the person you're waiting on when he'll have the task done, he either may give you a date that's later than what you need or may not commit to helping you at all.

Look at it from the other person's point of view. His manager has asked him to get certain things done, and your task might not even be on his to-do list. Tell your potential helper that this is a problem for you and that you're going to ask for help from management. Your attitude is very important; you're not tattling on this person, just pointing out that you can't get done what you've promised because of priorities that you can't directly control. The person genuinely may want to help you but can't meet his current commitments if he does. If you approach the situation from a constructive point of view, while keeping in mind that your potential helper takes direction from someone other than you, you're much more likely to succeed.

Explain to your manager how your commitments are in jeopardy because of dependency on helpers who have separate things to do. Discuss whether it makes more sense for your helper's priorities to change, for you to adjust your own commitments, or for you to embrace another creative solution.

If the person works for a different manager than yours, the problem needs to be discussed with that manager. It's most effective if you and your manager talk to the other manager together. If you already have a good relationship with the other manager and have trouble finding a meeting time that can include your manager, you may want to talk to the other manager alone. Or your manager may decide to tackle the issue alone, in which case your dependency has now shifted to your manager.

Remember, this is not a process of complaining. Your goal is to explain the situation matter-of-factly and discuss the consequences of not taking action. Think beyond your own responsibilities, and be ready to discuss things from the point of view of the organization as a whole.

You Aren't Getting the Guidance You Need
Sometimes you need a decision from someone in order to guide you in the right direction. It can be very frustrating when you can't get a straight answer. Here are a few ideas to help get the answers you need to move forward.

Find out when is a good time to talk to the person you need an answer from. Some will grumble about how busy they are until you offer to schedule a meeting. Scheduled time is easier for people to accept than unplanned interruptions. Keep the meeting length to thirty minutes or less if possible. It might give you some anxiety to have to wait a few days to get in to see them, but most decisions you're seeking answers for aren't actually emergencies. When you demonstrate that you use people's time wisely, you start building relationships that will give you quick cooperation in the future.

In one extreme case, I wanted feedback on my testing strategy from the director in charge of the product under test. The director said he had no time available to schedule a meeting. So I carefully formulated a list of questions to elicit the feedback I wanted--still, no response. I then filled in the answers myself, labeled them as "assumptions," and shared them with the director. These assumptions represented my best guesses about what the answers would be. I made them crisp and unambiguous, so it would be clear to the reader if they weren't right. Even this didn't generate a response from the director, but it did create a paper trail showing the direction I was taking and gave my manager a succinct summary of my plans that we could discuss.

You might be tempted to tell someone "I assume that we don't actually need to do this work at all." That might be the most reasonable assumption in some cases or at least the most likely provocation to get a response, but be careful not to unnecessarily escalate emotions. My documented assumptions helped cut out large swaths of scope, but didn't suggest that we abandon testing entirely.

Avoiding Roadblocks

If you've been able to get the wheels in motion to demolish a roadblock, you may still have to wait until the roadblock is fully cleared. Here are some tips to mitigate that wait time:

  1. Anticipate what roadblocks may lay ahead. Get started on clearing them early, before they're in your critical path.
  2. Use scarce resources wisely. When you see an opportunity to use some resource that's not always available, adjust your priorities to use it when you can.
  3. Keep a to-do list with more than one item on it. When one task gets blocked, shift temporarily to a different task. I keep a Scrum-inspired, personal to-do list, with items ranging from an hour or less up to a day or two of effort, even when the project I'm working on does not use an agile process. I share this list with my manager regularly and discuss the priorities, so I'm always prepared to make a brief shift without needing immediate feedback from the manager.

Don't think that you shouldn't have to work with managers if your own work is more technical than managerial. Managers need to know as soon as possible when you have tried all the avenues within your power and you're still stuck. You should enable them to help keep your work on track or modify your commitments if necessary.

Encountering roadblocks is frustrating. We'd like for everything we need to be handed to us, but then our resourcefulness wouldn't be needed on the job. Don't be afraid to invoke the services of the managers in your organization. Work from the premise that everyone is generally doing what they've been told to do, but you're providing crucial new information that might indicate that priorities should change. Develop the discipline of tackling roadblocks calmly and constructively, and you'll quickly gain a reputation as a highly effective contributor to the organization.

Further reading

  • Becoming a Technical Leader, Gerald M. Weinberg
  • Agile Software Development with SCRUM, Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle

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