The Purposeful Bottleneck

The term “bottleneck” is generally derogatory, referring to a person, bureaucratic process, or department that stifles the flow of communication or productivity. Bottlenecks stop up the flow, slowing things down, and are generally viewed as inefficient… but as I examined my own work, I found a positive side to bottleneck positions.

coca-cola-2-liter-botleLet’s take a look at the Coca-Cola 2-liter bottle. Really, any soda will do, but I drive past a billboard advertising this thing every day, so there you have it. When looking at an actual bottleneck, we can see it has a purpose. If there was no neck, just a huge 4-inch hole at the top of the bottle, liquid would flow too quickly. It’d dump out all over everything, causing a sticky, wasteful mess. By slowing things down and directing the coke to where you actually want it to be, things are done properly.

Some people, even my co-workers, have on occasion remarked about an aspect of our jobs ((Note the word “aspect,” because this is a relatively small portion of our job as Centralized User Support Specialist. We generally learn the answers so we can help people ourselves, but there will always be some things we need to pass on. And since we are User Support Specialists, we excel at communicating with users and making sure they get the service they deserve, so when we do pass their information on, it’s done well.)) they find puzzling at the least, and terrible at worse: that is, we act as a bottleneck on certain communications. We have people call us or email us and we then pass those phone calls or emails on to the next group of people. We act as a buffer so those other people aren’t bothered by the masses. “Wouldn’t it be faster if the customer just called the person who will actually fix their problem directly?” some wonder. Ah, but there’s the problem.

How will the customer know who to call? That’s where the bottleneck in communications becomes helpful. We can slow things down, analyze the situation, and figure out where it needs to go. People know they have a computer problem, but they don’t know who fixes it. We do, so when people call us, we can make sure it goes the right place. We have to know something about everything: a bit about how everything works, a bit about how to fix everything, and we have to know what everyone in our department does so we can route work efficiently.

A proper bottleneck doesn’t just slow things down, it directs the flow properly. If someone’s just causing inefficiency, they’re worthless, but if the action has a purpose and is beneficial to the workflow, that’s a good bottleneck. And as part of my job, it’s a skill I work to polish and perfect.

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