The human backup: establishing the team's unlikely successors

Any business knows the importance of backing up data as a contingency plan. But do you back up your humans too? Here’s how tech teams can prepare for a short-term staff disruption, such as an employee who is unexpectedly out with the flu – or with Coronavirus.

May 12, 2020
Tamas Cser

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Any business knows the importance of backing up data as a contingency plan. But do you back up your humans too? Here’s how tech teams can prepare for a short-term staff disruption, such as an employee who is unexpectedly out with the flu – or with Coronavirus.
Any business knows the importance of backing up data as a contingency plan. But do you back up your humans too? Here’s how tech teams can prepare for a short-term staff disruption, such as an employee who is unexpectedly out with the flu – or with Coronavirus.

Your company may have a succession plan in place for its top executives. But those contingency plans are usually for expected events over the long term, such as maternity leave or a retiring business leader.

Smart businesses also make succession plans for the rank and file team members. Developers call this the bus factor, representing the number of people required to pick up a project’s work if one team member were hit by a bus. However, it’s wise to develop contingency plans for short-term disruptions, too, such as when an employee is out for two weeks with the flu or goes on a long vacation. Besides, you can never be certain the vacationing employee will return to the office after a recruiter calls with an offer too good to refuse or finds a winning lottery ticket. 

The Coronavirus is putting this into perspective for many companies. The sheer scale and immediacy of short-term succession plans during the Black Swan event is overwhelming. But it is wise to figure out, “Who’s going to step in, if this team member is unavailable?” in any case. Here is how to map a human backup trail of successors for every occasion.

Busting brain silos

One major goal in company leadership succession plans is retaining institutional knowledge. That is a top reason for short-term succession planning for the rank and file too. In both cases, you must pull knowledge from a person’s wetware – the brain silo – and put it in a form that is easily sharable and regularly updated.

"Get knowledge out of people's heads. If only each employee knows how to do their job, it's of no value to your business,” says Alister Esam, CEO of Process Bliss, a provider of business process management software. 

That task can appear daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. “People think that documenting [a business] process is a big, scary task, but simply writing down what you do the next time you do it is the first step in ensuring your business is protected from whatever the world throws at it," Esam adds. 

However, processes are not the only things that need to be documented. For example, developers need to share code, releases, security notes, and other details so another developer can instantly step in and continue the work. The same is true of a key open source maintainer who may suddenly leave the project to take a job elsewhere. Managers should identify bench replacements and ensure those people are well versed on where the project stands and what needs to happen next. Make updates part of onboarding of new employees, just as you cancel credentials for off-boarding employees. This helps keep your process in top performance mode. 

“Ensure that your employees are keeping no 'personal secrets' – that they are not retaining essential information that is critical to the running of processes,” says Carolin Hinck, author and director at ATutor, a tutoring advice website. “First, flat out ask them; and second, test what you know to ensure that operations are going smoothly from what is known,” Hinck adds. 

The important thing is to bust brain silos early on rather than attempt to do it after a disaster occurs. 

Take for example, English Blinds. The UK-based window covering retailer has most of its workforce working from home during the COVID-19 outbreak

“We put a lot of time and thought into drawing up a comprehensive outline of COVID-19 coverage and back-ups,” says John Moss, CEO of English Blinds. 

“This included fail safes. And while this would let us down to an extent if we reach a tipping point in terms of the number of workers out sick at the same time, so far it has paid for itself in terms of the efficiency and continuity it has provided us with in the interim,” Moss adds.

Steps to backing up humans for short-term, short notice disruptions

“There are some very basic steps that companies can take, especially if you are just starting to think about this,” said Adrienne Cooper, chief people officer at, a website providing resource content for small business owners. She suggests:

Find out who is using what at your company. Take an inventory of applications being used by teams or individuals and make note of the log-in information. Even small companies can use more than 200 applications, so this task likely takes time and requires regular updating. 

Use shared drives to save information rather than individual drives or folders. “Provide the appropriate team members access and design a shared filing system for saving information. This way, documents are accessible for the entire group and make it much more fluid when people are out or leave for any reason.” 

Establish group forms of communication through a shared email inbox or a group Slack channel. “When team members change or are out, you are not having to redirect or change the habits of the rest of the company's employees,” Cooper adds. “They still contact the same email or same channel, and your team adjusts so that information isn't lost.” 

Those processes can apply to almost any department in any business. But you also need to prepare the human backups for the eventual use of the process.

Prepare human backups for the failover

Build redundancy into the system. If only one person can sign company checks, and the accountant is in a car accident… the company has a problem.

Technology teams have been aware of the need for cross-training for a long time, but not everyone actually makes a point of addressing it. It might be as casual as “lunch and learn” sessions, in which one team member explains the code he’s been working on, or it may be a formal training session in which the software architect shares the architecture overview for the next version of an important system. The goal should be to ensure that someone has the keys to the store, technologically speaking, and could pick up the project based on an established, shared understanding. 

“I've seen a lot of plans get developed over the years, but the implementation is the real struggle,” says Jessica Lambrecht, founder of The Rise Journey, an HR consultancy. 

“Individuals should know well in advance the job functions they may one day be responsible for, in order to keep communication open with the individual(s) currently handling those tasks, but also to be mentally prepared in the event this plan goes into action, as it's likely to be abrupt,” Lambrecht adds.

How do you know it’ll work? You test it

Just as you test data backup procedures – you do, don’t you? – you should test your short-term recovery processes often. To further smooth the hand-over – the human equivalent of a server or datacenter failover – consider making practice runs or drills part of your human redundancy testing.

“Sudden, stressful events take a huge toll on emotional and cognitive wellbeing. There shouldn't be added surprises when managers and/or colleagues get sick or have to step away unexpectedly,” Lambrecht warns. 

If the plan is to be implemented successfully, “Leaders need to provide everyone with the best chance to succeed. Let them know what is expected, what that new reality looks like, and how these new inherited job functions would affect the work they are currently doing,” Lambrecht says. 

Software teams have much to do to cope with Coronavirus. One of those tasks should be to organize things so that people can pick up the slack, if necessary. And obviously it’s a good idea in any case – because who knows, perhaps one of your teammates will win the lottery and take off!

The notion of cross-team training isn’t a new one to Agile teams. Learn how to extend your teamwork sensibilities in our white paper about the need for Agile testing.

by Pam Baker

A prolific writer and analyst, Pam Baker’s published work appears in many leading publications. She’s also the author of several books, the most recent of which is“Data Divination: Big Data Strategies.” Baker is also a popular speaker at technology conferences and other specialty conferences such as the Excellence in Journalism events and healthcare tech events at the NY Academy of Sciences.