How to Reclaim Control of a Stalled Task, Why Wait?


Whenever an employee, or a vendor, or anyone really, gives me a project update that they are "just waiting on…," it makes me uneasy.


As in angst-inspiring  uneasy. “Just waiting on” is the clear signal that a task is stalled, which tells me:

  • We're exactly where we were last time; 
  • it sounds like the task is not in our control at this point; and
  • there's no clear path to a next step… or completion.


Why It’s Not “Just” Waiting on an Stalled Task

To "just wait" is an implicit acceptance of things being out of your control, which means so too are the quality standards and the timeline to get the task done. Waiting” literally means “the act of remaining inactive or stationary,” and that says something. It's not possible to have a quality company that has "waiting" incorporated into the process. When those words are uttered to me I envision a virtual shrug of the shoulders that leaves me with the impression that the task just isn't being taken seriously enough. 


How to Stop Playing the Waiting Game on an Stalled Task

Procedurally, anytime you are waiting on someone to call back or send you something, you have got to make sure there is a trigger set for yourself to follow up on it.

Now, as a manager, I bear the ultimate responsibility of any task, right? Yes. So is the manager in charge of ensuring task  follow up in any case of “just waiting on…”?. No. The task owner is still responsible, just as with any other part of their task. In fact, if a manager removes this responsibility from the employee,  they are also taking away an employee's opportunity to better themselves. That’s a thievery of their future. 

To overcome these “just waiting on” roadblocks, I use a simple technique:  I explicitly tell my team members  not to accept "just waiting" as a step in their project. And to be clear, this isn't to say we shouldn't ever wait on somebody or something. It's to say the responsibility to accomplish something still rests with the wait-er (you've got the monkey) and they should maintain control of it with deliberate and regular reminders to actively follow up.


Putting Wait-Management to Work

So how do you keep control while waiting? The way it looks in your task-management tool is to change the date as to when you are going to call or email the person you are waiting on. You'll take notes on exactly when they said they would have it to you. Keep the task alive by being proactive, not by simply passively waiting. 

It’s important to  remember that the task is your priority; when you reach out to someone else for some component or input,  they are essentially doing you a favor. What you see as a priority, they view as a hassle. Still, a reminder from you, if necessary, is typically appreciated. It will resonate to them as your tenacity to accomplish something; they will want to help you.


Maintaining Control With a Simple Phrase

Really, this is what it boils down to: even when you are waiting, you need to maintain control in a very systematic way. And when you are telling your team or your manager that you're “just waiting on…," rephrase it with something like "I have a follow up with Ms. X scheduled for..." 

This change will imbue in your manager and your team a sense that you have it under control. While this rephrasing is so simple, it’s also very rare to hear a stalled task described in that way. Anyone listening will pick up on the nuance as being professional, proactive and competent.


*This article has been altered from the original version which was posted on Wistar Group’s blog.