The Art of the Blackout

Operations teams have a lot of work to do. That work is often unscheduled, spur-of-the-moment and deadline driven. As a result, it can be hard to get things done. We’ve all been there: We walk into the office with the full intention of getting this one major task done. We look at our calendar and say to ourselves: “My day looks pretty open. I should be able to get a ton of stuff done!” And then it happens. A system goes down and it needs attention. Later, three people want to do a postmortem on the downtime and absolutely must do it today. The the payroll office sends a note saying that payroll has to be done today because of something happening on Monday. There are 50 emails, voice mails and instant messages waiting for attention.

All of a sudden, what looked to be a pretty open day is jam packed full of “stuff” that has to be done. Of course, you weren’t planning for any of it. But that doesn’t matter. Now you’re not going to be able to finish that one major task you intended to complete.

I’m here to tell you there is a better way. I have to admit, I’m not the one who came up with this idea originally. I didn’t even come up with the name. The first time we tried it, my team pitched it to me. They had a huge task to get out the door and very little time to do it. In order to be successful, they needed everyone on the team to chip in, do more than they would normally do to help each other with various tasks and they needed people like me to leave them alone. The team decided that if they went into what they termed a “blackout” they would be able to get more than five days worth of work done in the next two, and launch the campaign on time. It sounded like a great idea, but I was skeptical. They explained what they were going to do, how there were going to set it up and convinced me that they had at least thought it through. So, we went for it. And two days later, the work went off without a hitch — on-time and on-budget.

They were excited and proud of themselves, and so was I. Their idea had worked! They had delivered for a big customer on a very tight deadline. They delivered a campaign that met and even exceeded expectations from launch all the way through. Let me share with you how it all came together and how you can (and should) replicate this when the need arises.

First, how do you know when you need to use a blackout? Blackouts are not for everyday tasks. They aren’t intended to be perpetual. Blackouts are useful for those times when there is a big press of operational work to be done in a very compressed span of time. If you typically need five days to accomplish something and there is a driving business reason where you need to get it done in half that time, then a blackout is the way to go. If you have the full five days to get it all done, then a blackout isn’t really going to serve you that well.

Next, how do you set up a blackout? This is really the crux of making the blackout successful. The group of people involved should be separated from the rest of the group and/or the rest of the company (physically and electronically). At the same time, they should have all the tools and access they need in order to get the job done. I think the separation speaks for itself, but just in case: physical separation gives both a feeling of isolation and being left alone as well as camaraderie for the tasks at hand. Electronic separation keeps people across the organization from expecting responses to emails, IM’s, texts, or even voicemails. The message to the rest of the organization: We have to get something done, we’ll be back to regularly scheduled work as soon as possible.

The first time we set up a blackout, the team reserved a conference room for two entire days. Everyone took their laptops into that conference room and holed up for the next two days. The second time we set up a blackout (and the method we use predominately today) we just blocked off their cubes from the rest of the group. We used mobile whiteboards (which also served to give the team some planning areas on which to diagram things). The team blocked all phone calls so no one could call. They posted signs telling everyone who stopped by to see me with questions. The team even turned off their cell phones, email and instant messaging. Once again, blackout worked great.

All told, the team went into blackout five or six times over the course of the year. It was always in response to a late piece of work that had such restrictive completion dates that there was no other way to accomplish it. And without fail, these blackouts resulted in our hitting deadlines and delivering on time and on budget.

My favorite part about the entire thing is that the team came up with it, they own it, and they police it. In fact, when I’ve suggested going into blackout to them, they have typically come back saying the situation doesn’t warrant one. But they always thank me for supporting them when they need one. And your teams will thank you, too, if you offer up the possibility of freeing them to do a massive amount of work in a short amount of time!

With more than 20 years of experience in the leadership and management of operations and customer service, I’m happiest when working to bring out the best in people and organizations. I’m deeply committed to coaching and mentoring and I’m a lifelong learner inspired by curiosity. I’m a passionate advocate for leadership, social responsibility and making a real difference in the world. If you would like to learn more about how to grow as a leader or work with me, check out my LinkedIn profile and drop me a note.

This article was originally published at on July 24, 2015

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