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How to Beat the Bus Factor (and Be Prepared for Anything)

bus factorWhat would happen if you were hit by a bus while walking to work?

Well, other than the morbidly obvious, and the time and money spent hiring and onboarding their replacement…

This is the line of thinking behind the infamous “bus factor” – the minimum number of people who, if out of action, would cause your operations to collapse.

46% of UK businesses would be forced to cease trading immediately if a key person died or was unable to continue working through illness or injury” – Online Money Advisor, Key Man Insurance: A Definitive Guide to Key Person Insurance

It might not be ideal, but it’s a harsh reality that every team has to face; whether temporarily or permanently, your colleagues aren’t always able to make it into work.

We, here at Process Street, have had more than our share of project delays (and even failures) due to a low bus factor, which is why this post has been written. Today, you’ll learn how to identify risky projects by using the bus factor, and how to mitigate those issues as quickly (and cheaply) as possible.

We’ll be covering:

  • What is the bus factor?
  • How to calculate the bus factor
  • Bus factor elements
  • How to increase your bus factor
  • The limits of boosting bus factor

Let’s get started.

What is the bus factor?

The “bus factor” is the minimum number of people who, if incapacitated, would cause critical system failure. This is traditionally applied to software projects, but the theory is applicable across almost any discipline.

The concept of “bus factor” is related to key person insurance. This is a policy that businesses commonly take out to cover the potential for a key person (eg, the CEO) to fall severely ill or even die.

It’s a morbid topic, but one that’s somewhat necessary for any kind of contingency (long-term future-proofing) planning.

Let’s say that workers of a certain team are, one by one, put out of action (by illness, delays via traffic, a bus, a truch, or whatever).

How many people, from most to least important, would it take for work to grind to a halt?

In other words, how flexible is your project to human problems like availability, or a lack thereof?

That’s what the bus factor is.

While this is mostly used in relation to development projects, it’s a useful figure to know to figure out how vulnerable a project is to being halted. Plus, with the continuing rise of the tech industry and the widespread use of tech in general, it’s far from a stretch to say that looking at what makes the industry work currently can save a massive headache when it comes to integrating it into an existing business.

It’s also worth noting that the bus factor doesn’t have to just apply to team members who are put out of action.

Let’s say that you’re a manager and, as such, have very limited time to spend on each project your team is carrying out. If you know that a project has a bus factor of 1 while others have a higher bus factor, you know that it’ll pay off to spend more of your limited time making sure that project runs smoothly.

How to calculate the bus factor

bus factor parts
(Source by Thomas Horrocks-Taylor, image used under license CC BY-SA 3.0)

The simple explanation for calculating a project or team’s bus factor is to say:

“What is the minimum number of people that, if absent, would prevent work from continuing?”

If a project cannot continue because a specific person is unavailable, you have a bus factor of 1.

In other words, it’s better to have a higher bus factor because that means that your team can continue working without depending on specific people for input.

At the core, this is a question about how well information is distributed in your organization. Process documentation and reducing complexity of workflows can help to raise your bus factor.

For example, when the team here at Process Street was much smaller, we intentionally structured work flexibly. When we started out, we didn’t have the resources to have dedicated graphic designers, editors, writers, knowledge base managers, and so on.

So, our team members were highly diversified in their training. I could handle customer support for a day if our rep was out, for example. But I would also be doing content reviews, and editing, alongside typical writing duties.

That meant that processes could continue working smoothly if someone was unavailable.

Sure, we had a fixed ‘editor’ to oversee and organize, but the day-to-day editing and review work could also be performed by our typical writers, due to the detailed processes we’d built and documented.

Bus factor elements

bus factor elementsYou know what bus factor is and how to calculate it. Great!

However, before I tell you how to improve your bus factor and boost the success rate of your projects, you need to know what factors contribute to your bus factor.

These bus factor elements are:

  • Project complexity
  • Subject specificity
  • Team transparency
  • Employee experience

Bus factor elements: Project complexity

Let’s say you have two projects to complete. One is to promote a new article to 30 newsletters in your niche. The other is to create 5 new videos to explain various features of your product.

Which do you think would be immobilized by a single key team member being out of action?

This is how project complexity plays a part in determining your bus factor. The more complex your project, the lower your bus factor will be.

Following on from our example, emailing 30 newsletters isn’t a very complex task (especially compared to other potential promotional projects). In fact, the entire task could be performed by a single person with little to no training – all they have to do is send emails to the relevant newsletters and follow up as-and-when.

5 new videos, however, are a different kettle of fish.

First you have to create the script, which will require multiple iterations and eventual review and approval by a manager to make sure that all of the information is correct. You don’t want to publish an explainer video that gets the facts about your product wrong after all.

Next you’ll need someone with a good audio setup to record the VO. This adds further requirements of the people available to carry out this task – if only one person in your team has a microphone good enough to record clear audio, your bus factor is already at 1.

That’s not even mentioning the potential screen recordings (which require appropriate software), custom animations, video editing, music, and so on.

Basically, the more points in the process of completing your project, the worse off your bus factor will be. More parts mean that there are more opportunities for things to go wrong.

Bus factor elements: Subject specificity

The complexity of a project isn’t necessarily the biggest problem contributing to your bus factor; that dubious honor goes to the subject’s specificity.

The more specific your topic, the worse your bus factor will be.

More specifically, if all other factors remain constant, your bus factor will decrease proportionately to how much specific expertise is required to carry out your work.

Going back to our example of a newsletter outreach campaign vs creating videos, the campaign requires next to no experience to carry out. This means that, if incapacitated, the person responsible for sending and fielding replies to the emails can be changed with relatively little issue.

The same can’t be said of creating videos. While it’s true that someone could learn the basics of video creation and produce a rough video in due time, it’s much harder to find a quick replacement for an animator, voice actor, scriptwriter, or video editor.

Bus factor elements: Team transparency

For me, this is the big one. So many problems and sudden absences in our team here at Process Street have been solved because we work out loud.

The more transparent in their work your team is, and the more they communicate, the better your bus factor will be.

Back in 2019 one of our core marketing team members left but, while we were sad to see him go, we were able to pick up the slack he left behind by dividing his duties between existing team members.

The only reason we were able to do that was because we’d all documented our processes and had met twice per week for years for in-depth meetings to discuss everyone’s duties. We had our process management down pat.

Everyone knows what everyone else is working on, can access their files through shared drives, and can see exactly how work is being carried out through our documented process templates.

Bus factor elements: Employee experience

Business process management (BPM) isn’t everything though.

While there’s a little overlap with subject specificity, it’s also important to note your team’s individual experience level when thinking about your bus factor.

Work rockstars are all well and good, but your team shouldn’t be relying on a single person to pull up their results and complete projects. Everyone needs to have the appropriate training and experience to handle whatever you throw at them.

If they don’t have that experience yet, make time to give it to them. Chances are they will appreciate the change of pace, and at the very least you’re providing a backup for if the dreaded bus strikes.

Let’s say your Communications Manager or Customer Support reps fall ill. Do you have someone who has the necessary experience to fill in for them while they’re off ill?

Incidentally, this is where many startups have a significant advantage.

Just like our team, many startups are forced to have their employees wear several hats at the same time due to limited team size. This naturally provides cross-training for your various teams; our content writers can easily handle support duty, and all of our managers have experience handling our marketing email campaigns.

That’s not to say that your backup choice needs to be just as good as your first choice. Remember that bus factor measures how many people it takes before a project cannot be continued – if tragedy strikes, sometimes just getting things done is good enough.

How to increase your bus factor

what is the bus factor
(Source by Wladyslaw, image used under license CC BY-SA 3.0)

The simplest ways to increase your bus factor and made your projects more reliable in their completion are to invert the factors that contribute to your bus factor:

  • Simplify your projects
  • Make the subject less specific
  • Increase team transparency
  • Increase employee training

Three of these solutions are useful, albeit not entirely practical. It’s not always possible to simplify your projects or to make the focus of them less specific without defeating the original objective.

Similarly, increasing employee training is more of a long-term goal that can take months (especially if you’ve neglected it up until this point).

Increasing transparency, however, is easy. All you need to do is work out loud and document your processes.

Documenting your standard operating procedures (SOPs) lets you lay out instructions for exactly how duties should be performed. If a task needs doing more than once, it pays to write a process for how to complete it.

It doesn’t have to be a perfect process from the beginning – the important thing is that your method for getting things done is recorded. Then, if the person who usually carries out that task isn’t available, you can just have someone else work through their process to achieve the same result.

In other words, if your documentation is good enough, your bus factor should no longer be an issue for recurring tasks!

To help you document your processes, you can sign up for Process Street for free today! Our leading workflow software lets you easily record your processes and track them in action as actionable checklists.

Click here for some help getting started with Process Street!

The other elements of working out loud are exactly that; working in a way that lets everyone know (and, if necessary, access) what you’re working on.

This can be achieved through using a shared cloud storage service (like Google Drive) to house your project files, team project management software like Airtable, and services that let multiple team members collaborate on the same document at the same time, such as Google Docs.

Remote tools like these are a great way to quickly update your infrastructre to be more transparent and encourage your team to work together on their projects.

The limits of boosting bus factor

To round out, it’s worth remembering that certain projects will inherently have a low bus factor.

No matter how detailed you are in documenting your processes, you can’t always substitute the required expertise of the person responsible. Even if someone is able to carry out the same steps as the intended worker, they won’t have the same intuition when it comes to open-ended decisions, and will likely require supervision or extra review steps to ensure their work is correct.

There are also projects that contain sensitive information that you don’t necessarily want to increase the bus factor for. For example, if a senior management figure is put out of action for a while, it’s not necessarily appropriate to shift their duties to someone else (especially if they’re from a more junior rank).

In these instances you have two options for boosting the bus factor; training programs to give more people a wider range of experience, and expanding your team to have more people in each seniority rank of your company hierarchy.

It’s not easy, cheap, or quick to increase your bus factor under these circumstances, but it’s still better than having your operations grind to a halt.

How do you monitor or increase your bus factor? We’d love to hear in the comments below!

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How to Beat the Bus Factor (and Be Prepared for Anything)

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