The Vicious Cycle of Narrowing Bandwidth

We have all experienced the phenomnon of narrowing bandwidth – that time, either momentary or ongoing, where your needs outpace your resources.

The parent of three children can relate. Most times maybe things are ok. But then there are rare occassion where the stars align and boom – suddenly everything is chaos.

Parent is making dinner, one child is reading, the other playing games on her phone and the third is crawling around a slew of toys on a blanket within sight. Partner decides he needs to go out for milk. In partner’s absence, child one trips and falls down the stair, child two’s phone dies and she is in a panic while child three has suddenly had her diaper mysteriously come off and proceeds to gleefully pee on the floor.

There are a lot of potential responses to this -most of them poor. Parent decides to triage and runs to aid injured child assuming the floor can be cleaned later while shouting to child two to “HOLD ON ON MINUTE” and eventually life goes on.

These sorts of things happen in organizations all of the time and leadership needs to be able to navigate these moments so that they remain moments and not ongoing circumstance.

When bandwidth narrows and things pile up people often have an interesting response – they remain silent and try to keep up. Why? We do not want to appear incapable and so we keep trying to do more until suddenly something breaks and we quit. Managers need to be aware of this tendency and why is occurs.

A manager needs to ensure employees are aware that when they feel bandwidth narrowing their first task is to come to them. Management then tries to determine the cause –

  1. Increasing organizational needs on single employee are pushing them beyond their ability to keep up.
  2. Nothing has changed but employee’s skillset cannot manage the job.

At this point management needs to determine the correct/first response (triage). Do you train the individual? Do you increase bandwidth by adding staff? Do you remove the individual and rehire to the role? Or do we scale back and choose to not do certain things for the time-being (manage the growth)?

If these things are not done an interesting circumstance can occur – narrow bandwidth can become an excuse for maintaining narrow bandwidth.

To put it another way – staff are so overwhelmed with additional tasks due to narrowing bandwidth they no longer have the time to mitigate the issue through hiring.

When this happens pressure in the organization builds, people quit, bandwidth narrows further, hiring slows down even more as staff seek to catch up rather then fill gaps, and the cycle continues until structural or organizational collapse occurs.

The irony is this is not a difficult cycle to break but it requires leadership and decision making. Employees need managers to rescue them from a culture of fear and frustration by enforcing deadlines and requiring certain decisions to be made that focus on mitigating the bandwidth issue – having existant staff pick up the slack of narrowing bandwidth is not the solution and often feeds the cycle itself by driving them away.

In the end the solution lies in breaking a cycle of paralyzed indecisiveness and forging ahead so that key objectives can start being met again and the organizing can begin functioning like the well-oiled machine it was always meant to be.



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