Disturbances at work can be annoying and hinder productivity whether you are a developer, a writer, a manager or something completely different, so how can we minimize disturbances at work?

I have seen and heard a lot of advice on how to minimize disturbances at work. But they all seem to somewhat focus on the symptom (the actual disturbance) instead of focusing on the underlying problem (the cause of the disturbance).

For this piece I have decided to separate disturbances into two scenarios. One scenario is; information bottleneck. This is the scenario where one person sits on the bulk of information needed in a department or a project. This person will therefore naturally be disturbed a lot by colleagues as he or she is the only one that can answer their questions.

The other scenario is “decision bottleneck”. This is where a single person sits on the power of decision and therefore needs to be consulted whenever a decision is to be made.

Information bottleneck

I have worked on projects where a single person sat on a lot of critical knowledge and therefore naturally became bottleneck for progress in the project. This person would naturally be disturbed by questions from members of the project all the time, which they found annoying as they could not get anything done. Solutions to remedy the situation were seriously presented as; “Please try to disturb X less” or “Perhaps we should have a daily time-slot where questions directed at X could be presented”.

Both solutions would somewhat remedy the symptom (disturbance of X) but they would totally fail at curing the underlying disease (X being bottleneck of information). But worse than that, they would also make an almost arrogant assumption; “Other members of the team disturb X with problems that they should be able to solve themselves” or “X being undisturbed is more important than general progress in the project”.

Both of those statements are of course false. When working in a professional environment with senior people, they are very well aware of not disturbing others and in my experience people will probably lean more towards “wasting” too much time trying to figure something out themselves, than disturbing others without reason.

Decision bottleneck

Another scenario is working as a manager and constantly being disturbed by your subordinates. First of, a big part of your job as a manager is to make sure others perform at their optimal and can do their work efficiently. So naturally you will be disturbed when they run into problems or need to have your approval/opinion on issues. But how often and how minuscule the issues brought to you are, have a lot to do with the way you manage people.

Again a lot have been said about how to minimize disturbance as a manager and again a lot of them borders on the same solution as above; “Close the door and make yourself unavailable” or “Batch questions into specific times of day”. This once again assumes that either your time is a lot more valuable than the sum of people beneath you or that the people beneath you bring issues to you that are unimportant and therefore can wait. Both assumptions are in my opinion toxic.

People bring issues to you because either they are issues that only you can make a decision on or you have acted in a way that led them to believe that only you can make a decision on an issue like that. And there is a very big difference between the two.

So now let us get to a possible solution to the two types of issues, that actually targets the root cause and not the actual symptom.

Cure for Information bottleneck

The most obvious cure for “information bottleneck”, which you would probably already have arrived at yourself is of course knowledge transfer, and making sure that no single person sits with all the information needed in a project. But that does not solve the issue where you are in a project where this is already at play. If you had the time to do actual knowledge transfer you would probably have done it.

So the key here is to treat every rising issue as a mini-knowledge-transfer-session. The key person with all the knowledge, should not only tell the person asking the answer to his or her question, but also why that is the answer to that question. And if needing to look something up, then explain where the information is looked-up and why it is found there and what led him or her to look there for the answer.

It will take a tiny bit longer to answer all questions but over time a lot of knowledge will have been transferred and a lot of people will now then know where to look for there answers before asking the key person. It is just like TDD (Test Driven Development) or the Airline industry – over time as issues arise and gets solved the system as a whole gets more robust.

Cure for Decision bottleneck

The cure for “decision bottleneck” is a little bit different but along the same path. I will stick out my neck and say that if you are disturbed too much as a manager by “petty” things that could/should have been solved by you subordinates, then you probably need to look in the mirror for a cause and solution.

We have already established that there of course will be issues that should be run by you no matter what – those are not the ones we are concerned with here. The issue is to do with disturbances surrounding issues that your subordinates should have handled themselves, but still come to you with.

The issue probably have to do with lack of delegation or lack of proper delegation.

If you are not good enough at delegation, then of course a lot of issues that should have been handled by others still land on your table. If you are “good” at delegation but still micro-manage and check up on your subordinates all the time, then of course they will learn that they should not make decisions themselves as you will double check them every time. In other words them coming to you with every little issue is a reflection of what they have picked up from you managing them.

The solution therefore is of course to delegate properly. Give the assignment and then let properly go of it. If you decide to follow up on it, then do so in intervals decided by the experience of your subordinate with exactly this type of assignments. If they are less experienced, then perhaps you need to check up more regularly but if they are experienced, then perhaps you only need to come into play if issues arise.

And then when questions or issues arise, then do not only give answers. Tell them why you arrive at that answer. What is your thinking behind it. Let them learn over time to arrive at the same answers as you would. And vice versa – ask them about why they have arrived at the answer they have and get their reasoning behind it. They may know more about it than you do and thereby also make you trust them more going forward.

Another good trick is to have your subordinates have free reign within ranges. This could be decision where the financial consequence is less than $10.000 or where the impact on the overall project is less than 100 hours. In other words, give people freedom and responsibility to make their own decisions in scenarios where the overall impact of their decision is in relation to their experience and the overall impact on business in general. If you have delegated properly and been good at explaining your way of thinking as well as heard their way of thinking, then put trust in them and I am sure you will experience that most people will live up to that trust.

The solutions above are by no means a way to make all disturbances go away. But perhaps they can help you shift your mindset a bit and focus more on the root cause of the disturbances instead of just looking the symptom. Disturbances will always be there but if you implement the solutions above I am sure that you will minimize disturbances at work. Have faith in people and give them responsibility and I am sure that most of them will shine and become better over time.