The Bus Factor

Why it is important to create a project team that can continue to function even when highly-functioning members become unavailable.

An avid NFL fan, I’ve watched just about as much opening week coverage as possible this past week. Sandwiched between all the normal hoopla is the story of the Indianapolis Colts and their star quarterback Peyton Manning, and his surgeries that have broken his record streak of starting in something like 7 billion games in a row. What amazes me about this is that broadcasters and fans alike seem to have instantly resigned themselves to the fact that without this one player, the entire team will completely fall apart and miss the playoffs. Perhaps more surprisingly, though, is that based on their performance on Sunday against the Texans, this seems to be the case.

Understanding that one game does not define a team and one week does not fix a season in the books, this is still an interesting example of relying on individuals rather than the structure and makeup of an entire team. Football is a team sport. Unlike tennis, where Serena William’s loss (also on Sunday) to underdog Sam Stosur in the women’s US Open was on her and her alone, a football team should be able to weather the loss of one, or even a handful of star players, and still be competitive.

If Chris were to write about this, she might talk about the effect of the loss of an individual on the morale of the rest of the team. She might discuss leadership – and how the Colt’s owners and coaches don’t seem to have done a good enough job of downplaying their loss and refocusing attention on the active players. This is the “people” side of the issue – and they are very real problems that there should have been a plan in place for at the Colt’s organization from the day they realized that they had something very special in number 18.

From a “process” perspective, however, this is a classic example of hiring supporting cast for a rock star instead of building a concrete and functioning team. I’ve seen this same thing happen before, in far less sexy and glorious corporate environments. Sometimes it’s done on purpose – an executive decision is made to hire the best in their field and then fill in the blanks with people that can help get that person on stage in front of the audience. Other times, teams with poor process and structure struggle until someone extremely talented (or diligent) comes along and carries the rest of them on his or her shoulders.

This can actually be a dangerously appealing process. Extremely talented people are high-profile, they attract more of their kind, and they lift up the team rookies and make everyone around them look like a Pro Bowl contender. And the process works – for a time.

On the “Bus Factor” scale, however, this is a high risk plan. It’s as risky as having no depth in your team roster. Having only one kicker works just fine until one slip on artificial turf puts the onus on your punter to place the ball between the uprights from mid-field.

No offense to drop-kickers, but this is not generally an ideal situation.

This is where the Bus Factor comes into play. I can’t remember when I was first exposed to this term (I’d like to meet whoever came up with that one and buy them a beer), but for those not familiar, it has to do with measuring high-risk concentration of knowledge on a team. It’s based on some fancy algorithm that may or may not actually exist, but the name comes from calculations about how many people on the team can be hit by a bus before the project is at risk. Gruesome? Perhaps. But replace “hit by a bus” with “quit” or “move to Tahiti” or “win the lottery”, and you’ve suddenly got great perspective on the amount of investment and risk you’ve placed on individuals on your project team. The higher the number, the safer the project.

When it comes to the Colts and Peyton Manning, their bus factor was “1”. The team itself was designed to support one player, and without that player, everything fell apart.

The way to avoid this is to build a team structure that includes depth at every position, and include processes that ensure cross-training and responsibility sharing at every level. That structure is then filled with people who match the roles. You can still load up with rock stars if you can afford them, but what a strong team hierarchy does is bring out the rock star in everyone on the team, regardless of position. When you put people into a very well-defined role, and when you create a team that relies on every role equally, you have built a team that can weather the loss of any member.

With this, you avoid having a defense that can afford to be weak because you have such a high scoring offense. You ensure that your punter can buy your team good field position – even when he goes several games without kicking a single ball because your offense gets to the red zone on every possession.

When building a team, I think “orchestra”, not “American Idol”. Rock stars and Hall of Fame quarterbacks sell tickets and pack stadiums, but when they take a wrong-way trip under a bus instead of on it, the tour is over.


Considering a change to your team?  Why not jot a Thought and share it with a Trusted Thought Partner to get some perspective.  Its as easy, just log into www.MeetMaple.com.

Originally published on September 11, /2011

Written by Scott

Scott Waletzko built Maple with his bare hands, and is the managing partner responsible for all things technical at R. Alliance.

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