Getting blocked on a project or task at work is inevitable, and the likelihood is usually inversely related to the amount of direct control you or your team have over it. This guide provides multiple strategies with varying levels of intensity to get you unblocked quickly and help you escalate early and often.
First-level strategies to get unblocked
These strategies are lightweight, within the span of control of most teams, and don’t require extensive thought before attempting. If you're blocked, don't wait – try these early and often!
Raise the blocker to your team during your regular team meetings.
Your team may have a regular scrums, stand-ups, team syncs, project reviews, or maybe just a team chat room. It doesn't matter whether they're in-person or virtual – your teammates can often help you identify solutions or offer support that you didn’t know was available, but they won't know to help if they don't know you are blocked! Your team can also help divide-and-conquer if the quantity of work required is too large for one person to reasonably accomplish, but you might need to explicitly ask them for help.
If you're blocked on a specific individual or team, escalate directly to them with a clear ask for help.
Don't wait and see what happens; be direct and have a clear, simple "elevator pitch" to inform them why the work is important and why it can't get done without their help. If they can't unblock you immediately, ask them for a specific date by when they can, and don't be afraid to negotiate timelines to try to keep your schedule on track. And sometimes, when you're thinking about your elevator pitch, you might realize that you aren't actually blocked on them – think about whether you can take action to solve your own problem!
Meet with your stakeholders and try negotiating the scope of work or acceptance criteria.
Many project requirements can be adjusted, especially if you can achieve similar ends with different means. You might need to be creative and do some negotiation, but in my experience, many stakeholders are willing to make changes to their requests if it helps deliver results sooner without severely compromising the desired outcome. Perhaps you can partner with them to figure out how to turn their request for a car into a skateboard, scooter, or motorcycle instead. But be careful – I don't generally recommend pulling this lever first, because it's easy to get it wrong and harm your product goals while keeping your schedule on track.
Escalate to your manager.
Your manager may be able to help negotiate with blocking teams, stakeholders, or help get you support from outside of your team. As a manager, I'm always a bit dissapointed when I find out someone on my team was blocked for an extended period of time but wasn't comfortable (or didn't know) to escalate to me – I'm eager to help, but I can't help if I don't know there's a problem, so I try to foster an environment where escalating early and often is seen as a good thing and is a recognized as effective, transparent communication.
Second-level strategies to get unblocked
These strategies may be a bit more complex or effortful, and most are based around taking action despite not having full control over the situation. These approaches can be very effective in unblocking important work and often result in the team improving their skill sets and becoming more independent along the way.
If you’re blocked on permissions or access that someone else has, ask for those permissions for yourself.
Because you're blocked, you already have a good justification for why you should have those permissions – just bring your elevator pitch straight to the resource owner. While most businesses want to control access to resources for security purposes and follow the principle of least privilege, they usually don't want to unnecessarily impede normal operations and create bottlenecks. Whenever I have to go through someone else to get something done, even if it's trivial, I always ask whether I can get my own access especially if I have a reasonable justification. Many times it works, and if it doesn't, the worst that happens is they say "no".
If you're blocked on changes being made to a system owned by another team, but they can't help you on your timeline, volunteer to make the change for them.
Sure, you might have to learn something new, and the work might take substantially longer, but this is often better than the blocker never getting resolved and your work being on hold indefinitely. You'll need to be considerate to the owning team, respecting their conventions and practices, and likely get their review and approvals on any changes you make, but investments like this help establish away teams that enable businesses to scale rapidly and are a forcing function for developing extensible platforms and systems.
If you're blocked on a decision being made by someone else, put the decider(s) in a room and ask them to make a decision.
It doesn't matter whether it's in-person or virtual; if someone is delaying making a decision or kicking the can down the road, schedule a meeting for the soonest available time on their calendar, give them your elevator pitch and any supporting data, and ask them to make a decision. If they can't make the decision, ask questions to understand why: are they not the right person to make the decision? (then ask them who is, and repeat), do they need more data? (which data? then provide it to them as soon as you can), do they need more time? (can they give you a date?). And sometimes, the decision might not be in your favor and they're simply uncomfortable being direct about it. It's difficult to know this is happening unless you ask, so if you aren't getting a straight answer: ask!
If a point-of-contact is out of the office, reach out to their team or manager and ask for a backup.
There are few things as underwhelming as when important work is blocked because someone is unavailable for an extended period of time. People take vacations, get sick, have to travel for work, etc., and that's totally fine – there's usually someone else on their team who can help in their stead. Sometimes people list back-ups in their out-of-the-office messages, sometimes they share coverage plans with their teams or managers, and sometimes they forget and have nothing. Either way, ask their team and manager, and don't block on one person unless you truly have no other options.
Escalate up the reporting chain and keep escalating until you have a path to resolving the issue.
If you’ve escalated to an individual and can't get unblocked, raise the request (respectfully) to their manager. Be transparent with them that you're going to escalate, not to cut them out and go over their head, but in service of helping the business meet its goals. Often, I try to position this as escalating together, where I can partner with them in the escalation up their reporting chain rather than going against them. If you’ve raised it to their manager and are still blocked, raise it to their manager’s manager, and keep repeating until you get a path forward. It's a good idea to inform your own manager before you escalate, especially if you're going up multiple organizational levels, because they'll likely be asked for their perspective at some point and you want to make sure you're on the same page.
Escalate (or ask your leaders or partners to escalate) the blocker at company program reviews.
Many companies review their programs, projects, and goals on a regular cadence, which provides opportunities to escalate to company leaders or other teams when important work is blocked. You might not always be invited to these reviews, but someone else on your team, or your manager, might be. If so, give them the information needed to escalate on your behalf, and offer to accompany them to offer additional details or answer questions.
I’ve done these things and the work is still blocked
Sometimes, despite exceptional effort, you simply can't get your work unblocked. In these cases, don't immediately abandon the work: even if it's time to stop trying to get unblocked, you should do so deliberately and thoughtfully.
Are there other parts of the project or program you can work on in the meantime?
If you're blocked on one part of a project, try to be creative and find other areas where you can make progress in the meantime. Maybe there's some required documentation that you were going to have to create eventually, or some testing that you've been putting off, or perhaps there are parallel workstreams that don't share a blocking dependency, or maybe you simply haven't taken the time to plan out the other parts of the project yet. Now is your chance. If you can buy yourself some time to wait for a blocker to be resolved while remaining productive (on valuable work; don't make random work for yourself!), you may be able to minimize or even completely avoid schedule impact.
If you’re blocked on data or a technical dependency, can you fake it in the interim?
Perhaps you're waiting on a team to provide you with some data or an API so that you can build your part of a system. Rather than waiting, why not mock up some representative fake data or API and continue developing your feature as if it were the real thing? In my experience, I've often been able to align with external teams on data contracts or API signatures way before the real thing was available, and that allowed me to keep building and simply flip them over to the real thing once it was ready. For example, imagine you are building a feature that needs know the next 14-day weather forecast, but the system that provides that data won't be ready for another month. In the meantime, you could build a fake version of the API (like a simple method call with a similar API signature) that always returns
68 °F and sunny for every day of the week, build out your part of the feature, and then replace your fake API with the real one once it's ready!
If you’re blocked on a decision, is the decision reversible, or can you move forward with a safe default?
Many decisions are two-way doors, and the cost of changing directions is low, so try one out to the best of your judgment and be transparent with your stakeholders about what you’re doing. If you’re right, you’ve kept the work unblocked, and if you’re wrong, you’ve theoretically not caused any major harm or cost to the business because you can easily go a different direction.
Consider formally pausing the work.
Do you know when the work will be unblocked, but it's several months in the future due to higher priorities? Meet with your stakeholders and see if you can align to pause the work. You may need to wrap up some loose ends to pause it responsibly, and be cognizant that unfinished work can sometimes atrophy and will definitely become increasingly difficult to restart the longer the delay, but it may be better to pause the work than spin your wheels and potentially distract the company if other work is higher priority. If you do pause the work, make sure to establish a clear mechanism to track the blocking issue, like a ticket with the owning team, a recurring check-in, or similar.
Is the work actually valuable, important, and prioritized?
If you find yourself working on something that isn’t getting traction, or is constantly getting blocked, it may indicate that the work is not actually a priority for the company. Even if the work is valuable and impactful, the company may have made a difficult decision to focus on something different or higher priority. This is one of those hard truths, but it's important to look at your work objectively and get input from your leadership team if you are uncertain. The sooner you do this, the better, because if you are working on the wrong thing, the opportunity cost can be high and you might be distracting the business from achieving its real goals.
Is the wrong team or individual doing the work?
If you’re finding that you’re continually blocked, and that another team owns the majority of the things that are blocking you, that may be a signal that the wrong person or team is performing the work. It's sometimes hard to let go of something that you've worked on, or is important to you or your professional development, but again, you should look at your work objectively and make a recommendation for how to get it done efficiently, even if that means you have to step back and give it to someone else. In many cases, you can still be involved in the work and help deliver the right outcome.
If you found this post useful, you can subscribe to my newsletter (it's free!).