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How do you identify single points of failure in your business?

Good leaders are indispensable. Great leaders are dispensable.


Because the best leaders build a business (or team or department) that doesn’t rely on them. The business is robust, processes are documented, roles are defined, and responsibilities are shared, so that no one individual is essential to the running of the company.

To achieve this, leaders must also plan for succession, not just for their own role, but for every player in every team.

A useful exercise in this process is to look for colleagues who represent a single point of failure.

What is a single point of failure?

A single point of failure is any one thing that can cripple a business. It might be a point within a system, a process, a team, networks, or your services.

From an HR perspective, a single point of failure is a colleague that your business can’t live without. They might be the only individual with essential skills, contacts, knowledge or experience – assets that your business requires to survive. Without this individual, work might grind to a halt, or be severely disrupted, because there is no backup plan to cover their loss.

Most business services and solutions are now designed to have backup systems and failover options so that the failure of a primary system does not interfere with business operations. Managers and leaders are increasingly recognising the threat posed by single points of failure within teams and human systems, and the need to eliminate these dangerous weak spots.

As Deloitte write: “organisations have traditionally viewed resilience as an afterthought. But resilience can no longer be looked at as a ‘Plan B’. Resilience must be integral to the organisational DNA.” This resilience includes the people and processes that hold your organisation together.

A process for identifying single points of failure

It’s obvious that organisations need to be stronger than a single individual. So how can you uncover these weaknesses within your own organisation?

Your process might look like this:

1: List your key business processes and functions

You may need to interview a selection of people in key departments so you can build a complete list of tasks and processes.

2: Define the people responsible for executing all related tasks

Don’t be tempted to focus on job titles and roles. The important thing is to discover who is critically important for key processes. It might seem like the only Head of Operations is vital, but in reality, it might be Susan, the only person who knows how to recharge the flux capacitor, that your business relies on.

3: Examine any tasks with a small number of people attached

Any tasks that are reliant on a small handful of people are cause for concern, particularly if the skills, knowledge, or experience involved are difficult to replicate or replace on the fly. Take a closer look at these points and determine whether they represent true points of failure, not just the potential for inconvenience.

4: Categorise all risky processes according to the value or threat to the business, as well as how easy they are to fix

You’ll want to address the areas you’ve uncovered. Categorising these issues according to their severity will help you understand which points are most critical. And rating them according to ease of resolution will help you prioritise the fixes.

Categorise all risky processes

Reduce the risk of single points of failure

Deep down, we all want to be the hero, at least for a moment.

This desire can lead to problems when it’s a colleague who quietly treasures their linchpin status and views themselves as a hero-in-waiting. They may also enjoy those moments when colleagues turn to them for the metaphorical keys to unlock their problems. It’s not hard to imagine how single points of failure arise within our teams. But how can reduce their prevalence?

Evolve your corporate culture
Too many companies lionise individual successes ahead of collaborative endeavours. HR leaders and managers should be encouraged to view indispensable colleagues as an organisational risk. Great leaders make themselves disposable because they build robust teams. This is the message that should filter through in coaching conversations, check-ins, and performance reviews.

Pair people on future projects
Creating teams for projects is the perfect point to inject a degree of failure protection. Just ensure that no single individual is responsible for any component of a project. Define a ‘Plan B’ for every element.

Document all key processes
Your organisation should have documented processes for all business-critical tasks. Beyond this, you may need to document other business knowledge, such as contacts, unofficial practices, backup plans, technical contacts, software fixes, hardware manuals, and how to decalcify the espresso machine (the real MVP).

Make managers accountable
If a team’s performance dips dramatically when the manager leaves, then you know that the manager failed to make the team sufficiently resilient. The team’s performance was too reliant on the manager’s contribution. Incorporate a team’s performance into a manager’s evaluation, even after they leave a team. This can dramatically change how managers approach their role, encouraging them to think about how well the team can function without them.

Future-proofing your business

It’s clear that a single point of failure can be disastrous for any business. And we can also perceive how easily these situations arise, both through accidents of circumstance and through well-meaning individuals who are happy to shoulder an outsized burden.

This combination means that organisations must work continuously to shift their company culture away from individual heroics to a reliance on cohesive teamwork and shared responsibility.

At Tate, we work closely with organisations to incorporate resilience and futureproofing into their structures. This can extend to a full managed service that support programmes that can help navigate difficult times, enhance team resilience and staffing support.

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