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Replacing the Irreplaceable, or how to increase the ”Bus factor”

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One major factor that could have a negative influence on the successful outcome of a project is employee turnover, which represents the risk of key personnel leaving the project. Almost every team has a key member, who is difficult to replace. Andy Teach, author of the book From Graduation to Corporation, says the following:

“Being indispensable at work means that your supervisors count on you so much that without you, the productivity of your department might suffer, or at least that’s the perception”.

The IT Sector measures the risk of losing this ‘irreplaceable’ person via the ”Bus factor”. In short, this amusingly-titled indicator – the bus factor, shows the number of expendable team members that could potentially be run over by a bus, without jeopardizing a project’s ongoing process.

The expression ”run over by a bus” not only describes the case when a person dies, but also when they disappear suddenly from the project due to sickness, vacation, taking a new job, changing lifestyles or their life status, etc.

  • On the one hand, a low bus factor indicates a high level of risk, since it means that all the relevant knowledge and information is held by only a few team members.

The worst case scenario is when only one single person is in possession of this information, so their presence is vital in order to successfully complete the project.

  • On the other hand, a high bus factor indicates that the risk is low, since there are enough team members who have the necessary knowledge to continue developing the project, in case some of them would leave.

Multinational companies are, thus far, engaged in a sustained effort to prevent ”leveling up” key team members, in order to reduce the risk of employee turnover. They do not give out too much information to their employees, during training sessions, and do not let them develop a level of knowledge that is difficult to transfer.

It is important for them to create jobs where the roles and responsibilities can be learned in a few weeks, by anyone with average technical skills, granting them the ability to transfer any staff member in a totally new position, in one or two years, where they do not have to use their previously-acquired knowledge.

Therefore, it is important for every organization to increase their bus factor on any critical projects. Here are some tips and tricks to reduce risks and to maximize your own bus factor:

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1. Proper communication

Proper communication among team members can help with the necessary knowledge transfer. For example, working in a shared space reduces multiple barriers in communication, and it ensures that key information is always shared.

2. Share files with all team members

In case someone’s work must be overtaken by someone else, it would help to have access to all the necessary folders, meeting minutes, slides and survey results.

3. Prepare shared calendars for events

Shared calendars could help in balancing out assignments, which is an important step to increase the bus factor. Also, it is vital for every team member to know about any significant upcoming personal life events, in order to easily replace someone if it is needed.

4. Generate documentation for all processes and keep them updated

Nobody likes to write documentation, because it usually takes a lot of time. However, accurate documentation makes components easier to use and maintain, reducing support requirements, and improving quality & productivity.

By using updated documentation, new team members can easily catch up on new projects, reducing the risk of employee turnover.

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5. Send everything by email

Every important bit of information, meeting minutes or slides should be shared by team members not only verbally, but also in written form, in order to make them transparent and easily retrievable.

6. Coach and teach team members properly

Key employees should receive time allotments to teach and coach the rest of the team. Usually, the less-experienced person is left to do most of the heavy lifting, while the bus factor coaches and explains what to do next.

7. Reduce the complexity of the project

Sometimes less is more, so keep everything as simple as possible, in order to make it easily understandable by all team members.

Although, the ”bus factor” is commonly used in the IT sector, it can easily be extended to other industries or functional areas too, and it should be used by any type of teams.

Usually, there are some members who have the ambition to make themselves irreplaceable, however this should be circumvented by the management team, because it highly increases the risk that a project cannot be delivered properly, if the key player of the team quits half-way.

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Working with initiatives in PM – Check and Act vs. Study and Act
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