How to avoid “single point of failure” situations in your team?

One of the most often overlooked tasks of any leader is to plan his succession and to ensure he has a plan how to ensure his team works even if he loses a key contributor. We are all so submerged in the daily tasks that we often don’t realize that we fail to make the team resilient and disaster-proof. So how do you fix this situation?

Identify single-point-of-failure team members

Who are the key people in your organization? How do you identify them? The most obvious mistake you can make is to start looking at titles or seniority. Very often these things doesn’t matter that much and don’t mean that the person is a key to the success of your team and difficult to replace. I have always asked myself these couple of questions:

  • Does the person hold a unique knowledge? (being it institutional knowledge, technical or just knowing lots of people that are key to your team survival and no one else knows them or has that knowledge)
  • Does the person have a unique skill-set? (he might be The salesman, The leader to whom everyone comes for advice and mentoring or have a way to negotiate with others that gets your team anything you need)
  • Does the person provide a unique function that holds the team together? (he might be The leader even if his title doesn’t say it, or just provide a social role that keeps the team together and makes the work fun)

Find a suitable mitigation strategy

When you identify the key people think about what would happen if they wouldn’t show up in the office tomorrow. Just imagine how your team would look like without that particular person. Ask yourself:

  • What is the unique knowledge, skill or function you would have to replace?
  • What would be the impact on the team, atmosphere, product, customers?
  • What would be the short-term and long-term impact?
  • What would be the impact on daily operations?
  • What would be the impact on the potential growth of the team?

When you have the list look at the rest of the team and find people who are close of taking over that particular knowledge, skill or function. If you cannot find anyone who would be even close you are in trouble and you should seriously consider augmenting your team with an experienced person from outside sooner rather than later.

Execute and regularly follow-up

Assuming you found couple of people who would be able to take on some of the function of the key individual create a development plan for them to get the necessary skill or knowledge. Talk with your key employee and make it a point that he or she as a person who has something unique should make it a mission to share this with others. Let him mentor the people you identified as a potential candidates to learn the skill. As it goes with any developmental plans you need to regularly follow-up on the progress of the knowledge transfer or skill enhancement.

Make it part of your decision making process

Keep the execution plan readily available and look at it every time you make a decision about assigning new responsibilities to someone or making reorganization in your team. Ensure that with each new change you remove some of the single-point-of-failure situations, you give people a chance to learn new skills or get knowledge they need to act as a back-up for your key people. The biggest mistake organizations make is to constantly assign their key people on all critical or new projects thus creating bigger and bigger dependency on them, limiting others to grow and increasing the risk for the business.

If you want this exercise to have any meaningful impact you need to repeat it on a regular basis. Probably not every week but once every couple of months especially if the organization grows or shrinks is advisable. When you get to a point that the list of key people gets to zero it means you build enough resilience into the organization that it will survive anything (like someone taking a day off).

Twitter type summary: “Your responsibility as a leader is to identify key people and plan for their unexpected demise. The goal is not to have key people at all.”

Do you have a plan how to ensure your team survives and can execute its mission even if a key contributor leaves?

2 thoughts on “How to avoid “single point of failure” situations in your team?

  1. Pingback: No Surprises Please! | The Geeky Leader

  2. Pingback: The Case Against The Right-Hand Man | The Geeky Leader

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