Breaking silos: how to boost your team's resilience and avoid the bus factor

Discover how breaking silos can improve team resilience, reduce risks, and ensure project success, even when facing unexpected challenges or team member absences.
Have you ever encountered the concept of the bus factor? If not, allow me to introduce it. The bus factor is a simple idea that doesn't require any complex understanding.
Just ask yourself this question: how many team members would have to be unexpectedly unavailable (whether due to an accident or an impromptu vacation) for your team's work to come to a complete halt?

Of course, we don't want anyone to experience any misfortunes, so when contemplating this scenario, it's best to imagine a more lighthearted turn of events. When people take planned time off, earn promotions, or leave their jobs, there's usually a transition period for knowledge transfer and document sharing. But what if your colleague went a little overboard at a bachelor party and found themselves stranded in another country without any resources (a more optimistic alternative to being hit by a bus)? With your stakeholders eagerly awaiting the product, could your team still deliver without that team member's input?

In many dysfunctional teams I've come across, the bus factor is often as low as one. Losing just a single member can bring everything to a standstill or cause significant delays. Naturally, even high-performing Agile teams may experience some difficulties if they temporarily lose a member, and delays may occur simply due to having fewer hands on deck. However, work won't come to a complete halt, as the remaining team members will be able to pick up the pieces and continue moving forward, eventually delivering a functional product increment.

Silos are detrimental not only because they hinder the synergistic benefits that arise from teamwork, but also because they pose significant risks to your product or project. But does this mean that all team members need to be jacks-of-all-trades, well-versed in the intricacies of everyone else's work? Should UX designers take Python courses, and should testers learn about digital marketing? While expanding one's skill set is always beneficial, it may not be the most practical use of time and resources. And no, your backend engineers don't need to become experts in Photoshop or Figma.

That being said, it is essential for team members to be aware of each other's roles, know where information is stored, and be familiar with key contacts. Let's consider a few hypothetical scenarios to illustrate how a siloed team and a collaborative team would operate in different situations.

Let's introduce you to Linda. Linda works as a UX designer in an app development team, creating most of her designs in Adobe XD and assembling prototypes in InVision. The team is diligently working on a new feature that has already been announced to customers and generated significant buzz in the media. Linda is the sole UX designer on the team and is in the process of finalizing the UI for this highly anticipated feature. However, one Monday morning, she doesn't show up for work, and her phone goes unanswered.

Now picture Linda's team operating within silos, each member focused solely on their own portion of the product. The product owner writes specs (it would be surprising if a siloed team could craft proper user stories), while the iOS and Android developers code, and QA tests their output. With Linda missing, the developers cannot proceed, and work grinds to a halt as the team searches for a replacement. The new designer requires a few days to understand the problem, review previous app versions, and create fresh designs from scratch. The feature is delayed, and customers are left disappointed.

Linda returns after two days, explaining that she was stranded at her grandparents' lake cabin due to a thunderstorm that knocked out the power. With her phone's battery drained, she was unable to call an Uber or inform her coworkers. Although everyone is relieved that Linda is safe, the stakeholders are displeased with the delayed release.

Now, let's envision the same scenario unfolding in a collaborative team. When Linda fails to show up, her teammates don't start designing themselves. However, they all have access to Adobe XD and InVision, know where Linda stores her work, and can effortlessly locate her most recent iteration from the day before. As it turns out, the designs are nearly complete, and the feature's functionality is apparent to everyone thanks to the clickable prototype Linda finished on Friday. The product owner has some concerns with a couple of buttons, but making adjustments is a quick 30-minute task that a designer from another team can easily assist with. Additionally, Linda maintains design guidelines on a shared drive, enabling any designer to quickly jump in and complete the task. Although the team is concerned about Linda, work continues, and the app is released on schedule.

In conclusion, the more siloed your team members are, the greater the risks. Life is unpredictable, and while I hope nobody ever gets hit by a bus, there's always the possibility of illness, family emergencies, or even wild Hangover-like scenarios (facial tattoos and tigers, anyone?). Breaking silos doesn't necessarily mean team members must work on everything, but it does mean they can cover for each other when needed. Here are a few steps to break silos:

  1. Use shared folders for working documents and hold team members accountable for storing all documents there, including work in progress. Services like Google Drive, Box, Dropbox, and SharePoint make setting up shared storage easy.
  2. Create a knowledge base with best practices, common procedures, and other helpful information for newcomers. Even if your team doesn't frequently hire new people, this will be useful when you need extra help or team members must cover for an absent colleague.
  3. Conduct backlog refinement and planning sessions together, so everyone is aware of who's working on what.
  4. Encourage team members to assist each other, even if tasks fall outside their area of expertise. They don't need to be experts in everything, but a little extra knowledge about each other's tools and techniques can be beneficial.
  5. Craft vertically sliced user stories. In most cases, they will require collaboration from several team members with different expertise, promoting mutual learning and understanding of each other's tools and tricks.
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