In 1986 the space shuttle Challenger was brought down by the failure of an O-ring. A single, small, relatively inexpensive component ultimately destroyed a spacecraft worth hundreds of millions of dollars, killed 7 people, and caused the total and spectacular failure of an associated mission project with a budget of $1.5 billion (the average cost of a shuttle mission over the life of the programme).
As Steve Buscemi (“Rockhound”) said nervously to one of his fellow space shuttle crewmembers in the 1998 film, Armageddon, “You know were sitting on four million pounds of fuel … and a thing that has 270,000 moving parts built by the lowest bidder?” It’s sort of funny when you watch it (in a dark sort of way), but in the context of the Challenger disaster (and Columbia’s subsequent disintegration in 2003), not really.
Beyond spacecraft, most things that fly have an awful lot of redundancy and resilience built in. I’m not so sure businesses do any more. It’s my opinion (and therefore a fact) that reliance on a single point of failure (SPOF) is ever more prevalent in business today than it used to be. Simple economics in a recession sees to it, whether you work in the public or private sector.
That means project managers, no matter where you work, have to deal increasingly with SPOFs as a matter of routine. Where your SPOF is a person, it’s only a matter of time before you will have an issue. Whether you know it or not, right now you probably have a real risk (perhaps several) of SPOFs working on your projects.
I’ve written before about the dichotomous relationship between project managers and the people working on their projects. We can’t achieve anything meaningful without people, yet they usually represent our biggest delivery risk.
The investigation into the Challenger disaster concluded that the failed O-ring was never designed to operate at the low ambient temperatures prevailing on the day of the launch. And that’s how it is with most SPOFs. Few if any managers set out to create a situation where they’re entirely dependent upon one individual, but I guarantee that you will inevitably find yourself one-day dependent upon someone who is, often unknowingly so, a SPOF. The challenge is how do you recognise one before they unexpectedly go off sick or resign or something?
How to spot a SPOF
- You’ve probably heard of them already – they’re inevitably world famous in your organisation as the go-to person for whatever it is they do. Chances are you absolutely will want them on your project.
- They will do whatever it is they do extremely well, but perhaps on occasion with less regard for business priorities and the bigger picture. Look for early warning signs like them not being contactable, not responding to emails, and missed deadlines.
- They’re inevitably extremely busy. “If you want something doing, ask a busy person”, said Benjamin Franklin.
- Their function is usually niche. They may work alone, or in a very small team containing a bunch of people who are similarly stretched. Big crowds don’t tend to have too many SPOFs.
Hard & Difficult
The reality is few businesses can afford the level of resilience it would require to completely eradicate reliance on key people. Besides, getting resources to work on your project can be hard enough – it you’re lucky enough to be getting the services of someone so talented, you shouldn’t be looking a gift horse in the mouth.
Look for the above warning signs and take steps to manage the associated risk. If you are successful, please tell me how. I’m sorry if that’s not very helpful, but project management can be hard and difficult. At times it requires techniques that could be construed as a black art. It’s like herding cats, knitting fog and juggling sand. The good news is, unless you happen to be working at NASA… it’s not rocket science.