When you hear the term “bus factor,” I imagine a few different images come to mind. Maybe it’s the impending headlights of a bus heading straight for you or a fleet of busses trekking across the country. In and of itself, the term bus factor doesn’t sound like a negative term. On the contrary, it almost sounds powerful, unless you have already been exposed to it, or have experienced it firsthand.
The term bus factor represents the risk an organization or team takes when only one or a few individuals have key knowledge or skills which are not possessed by others on the team or organization.
To evaluate the bus factor in an organization or team, ask the question, what would happen if this person was no longer available or “hit by a bus” (hence the term)? Would the team be able to survive and at what cost? If the answer to that question results in not being able to operate without that individual, then the bus factor is very high and immediate attention is needed.
In smaller organizations, bus factor is common and almost unavoidable. As growth occurs and teams expand, it is also common for the bus factor to rise. This is because new employees, hired during a reactionary growth period, hit the ground running and pick up new tasks or simple tasks and begin to create their own bus factor while solidifying the bus factor of those already on the team.
Mitigating bus factor is an intentional process and sometimes a difficult one. Many of those holding onto knowledge and skills will feel vulnerable, and even expendable, when approached about passing items off. They will often react defensively and resist the change. As a company grows it is imperative to reduce and even remove bus factor in order to make continued and even exponential growth scalable.
The team I work with was wrought with bus factor, and it was only getting worse. We needed to do something quickly before it devastated our productivity. Our team of developers is a distributed team (not collocated), and essentially made up of two teams, one in each location, making this challenge even more daunting. So we did what seemed counter-intuitive, but necessary, we setup team leads and assigned them team members that are not collocated to them. Each team lead was given specific challenges to rotate the work items and a pair program was developed to share knowledge.
What came of this process was nothing short of miraculous. Efficiencies are skyrocketing, and team morale is continuing to rise. Why? Because team members get to work on different projects all the time. They are no longer pigeon-holed for the bus factor project only they were stuck on, even if they were the ones intentionally holding on. Queues are shifting and workloads are much more balanced.
Benefits of Removing Bus Factor
– Knowledge and skills that are scalable
– Better leadership that communicates and shares
– Better collaboration and trust among the team
– Employees who provide value instead fearing being expendable
Side Effects of Bus Factor
– Siloed knowledge and skills
– Lack of sharing and trust among team
– Poor collaboration
– Selfish mentality
– Log jams in queue waiting for one person to work on them
It is essential to reduce and even remove bus factor, whenever identified, in order to reduce risk and improve efficiency. It is a difficult challenge to overcome if you are facing it, but one well worth the fight!