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What’s the Bus Factor in Your Business?

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What’s the Bus Factor in Your Business?

I’ve recently spent an amazing two weeks, holidaying on a friend’s converted 50-seater bus, touring around remote Central Australia with a bunch of friends (a highly recommended trip I have to say!), and it got me thinking about the bus factor in business.

So, what is a bus factor anyway?

It’s a bit morbid, but the term bus factor refers to what happens if you or one of your team gets hit by a bus? It doesn’t literally refer to the proverbial bus, but could be something not quite so dramatic such as a resignation, maternity leave, relocation or reassignment; basically, anything that means a person or people can no longer do the work that they’ve been doing.

The bus factor was originally used in relation to software development but has also gained wider usage in business and management circles. This has resulted in a bit of variation in the way the term is used and what numbers are applied to it, so it’s important to know the context of how it’s being discussed.

In a team sense, such as a software development team, a low bus factor is bad, i.e. the higher the bus factor, the better, because it refers to the number of people that would need to get hit by a bus for the project to fail. So, if the team’s bus factor were 1, then the project would fall over if that one person couldn’t continue. A bus factor of say 5, means a much higher level of protection or safety for the project because 5 people would need to be wiped out before the project fails.

In an individual sense, running on similar lines to key person risk, a high bus factor is bad, i.e. the lower the bus factor, the better, because it refers to the percentage risk of impact associated with a single person getting hit by a bus. So, if the individual’s bus factor were 1.0, then the impact of that person no longer being in the business would be dramatic. If their factor were 0.5, then their departure would only have a moderate impact. If their factor were 0.0, then the business wouldn’t feel a thing if that person wasn’t around to do their work.

Look at the bus factor in your business.

Take a good look at your business and work out your bus factor. Identify your key risks and your key people. Problems to look out for include:

  • Is key knowledge or ability restricted to one or a few people on the team?
  • Are key partnerships and relationships highly concentrated on a few individuals?
  • Do approvals or certifications depend only on specific people?
  • Are just a few people the engine room of your business?
  • Do things grind to a halt when a single person or a couple of people are absent?

Improve your bus factor.

Once you’ve worked out where the critical risks and bottlenecks are in your business, it’s time to work out what to do about it. Things to consider doing include:

  • Upskill your team and make sure a good number of them have a good range of skills and abilities.
  • Have some generalists in your team who can cover for the specialists in times of need.
  • Document everything!
  • Centralise your knowledge repository so that everyone has access to it.
  • Systemise your business and work practices so that everyone is working in a common way.
  • Share information among your team to increase awareness and keep everyone up to date.
  • Distribute responsibility among the group so that no one individual is bearing too much themselves.
  • Strengthen relationships with key partners by sharing them among your team, rather than restricting them to just a few people.
  • Plan your work and work your plan; be proactive in the way that you distribute tasks around the group.
  • Encourage flexibility within your team so that a number of people can slot into a number of roles.
  • Standardise your approach to whatever it is that you do, so you develop common systems and processes that everyone can understand and relate to.

Welcome the buses – Don’t fear them.

Change your perspective on buses; take a line out of Richard Branson’s quote book and treat buses as a welcome opportunity rather than a symbol of impending disaster:

Business opportunities are like buses, there’s always another one coming.

If you can build your business with a strong bus factor, you’ll insulate yourself from the problems that can occur when some of your team disappear, by reducing your dependency on key people. So, instead of being hit by the bus, you’ll be able to jump on board and capitalise on the opportunity it presents.

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