Monday, April 01, 2013

That Critical Resource

He was passion personified and loved what he did; on most days he would be the first to arrive and the last to leave. For him there were seven days in a week which just rolled along, rarely he took even the weekends off. Meal times whether breakfast, lunch or supper happened on the move whenever a few minutes presented themselves in between fixing issues or changing code. He was in perpetual motion and yet tireless like an ideal state machine.

Users loved him as he always smiled and never said no to any request or demand. Technically he was good and working 16 hour days he almost always delivered to promise. Not that the rest of the team complained, in fact they passed on some of their work to him which he took on with no qualms. The CIOs attempts to slow him down did not change his working style until one fine day nature took its toll and he was down with illness and out of commission for a month.

A decade and more later, in another company a similar story played itself again. I don’t remember if it was the first job for the person, she had already spent a decade in the company and had been part of the IT evolution from the first set of large investments. Having spent so much time, she knew every aspect of the business and the system; when the principal vendor had a problem which they needed to validate, they would call her and she always had an answer. If there was one, she was the subject matter expert.

The company was growing in leaps and bounds which lead to increase in workloads. Unable to retain a team of professionals due to her nature of micro-managing every aspect of the work, the pipeline started getting clogged leading to delays in the regular stuff; the urgent always got priority and was addressed. The bottle-necking required drastic steps and the CIO moved her laterally to the business and distributed the work to the team. Very quickly there was no pending work and everyone was happy.

Every company has this scenario playing out in some way or the other. There is always a set of resources that are deemed critical to the functioning of the company that they end up getting overloaded. Some get into such situations by default because they are good at what they do and some create such situations because they love being the center of attention and attraction. In either case their false sense of importance leads to the person and the company suffering as observed in the above anecdotes.

A long time back one of my Managers told me “In every company there is one individual who is indispensable, s/he should be fired”. Curious and naive I asked “Why?”; to begin with apply the Red Bus theory, if a bus runs over the individual, what happens to the company ? And how to prevent and minimize any minor or major disruption ? The second reason is to address the growth aspirations of the person. If s/he is critical to a position, task, process or function, then s/he cannot get elevated as s/he is critical.

So whenever such a situation presented itself, I have used a step by step approach to de-risking the individual as well as the enterprise.
  1.  Discuss the situation with the individual to create awareness; ensure that s/he understands the implications to self and the company
  2. Explore growth aspirations and personal goals and how they may be restricted by the current reality. If this has been the situation for long, cite peer examples of growth
  3. Work with him/her to find a workable solution which could be lateral or upward move, changing role or addition of resources
  4. If none work, outplace the person

You also have the option to let the situation be and do nothing; not that anything has happened in the last so many years, so why should it happen now ? That is a choice to make. Have you faced such a predicament either yourself personally or within your team ? What did you do ? I would love to learn from your experience.


  1. Anonymous10:22 AM

    In both cases above it is a management failure. No one is indispensable in a company. A company does not need super heros but need to sustain work balance while meeting business expectations. It is up to a company's leadership on how to balance so that there is cross-pollination within the team. Just because someone needs or wants to know everything and being a center for everything does not make that person invaluable or creates an ivory tower for that person.

    Managers always want to depend on fewer folks than a team of folks because it is easy to get information and depend on fewer folks than a bunch of team members as connecting the dots for managers becomes more complex

  2. Anonymous4:32 PM

    My two bit..

    So true.. I have seen that happen in 2 of the firms that I have worked in.

    Indian companies do NOT invest in people and indirectly end up creating such SILO's . Also the individual employee himself/herself should realize this problem. The annual feedback form should have this as a parameter to judge. HR too has good role to play (understanding operational risk or the lack of it.. ).