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The Risk of No Replacement Plan

By:  Collin Quiring

I see the world through the prism of Project Management.  Lately, I have been thinking about the Risk of a key person leaving an organization – a succession plan.  When Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation I was surprised to learn that the Catholic Church had a plan for the resignation of a Pope.  It hadn’t happened since 1417, nearly 600 years.  Yet, there was a  plan for succession based on a resignation (different from the plan for succession by death).  The most recent updates to the plan that I found were made in 1917, 1975 and 1996.  Those documents even set out the rules for the reasons a Pope can resign.

It makes sense to have a succession plan for key executives of an organization.  But, I think there should be a succession plan for key folks that centers around “what do we do about the knowledge that is leaving”.  I think organizations often have a succession plan from an organizational structure point of view but don’t know what to do about a key person’s ability and knowledge.  I am not referring to an executive but a person that should be considered key due to their knowledge or experience.  In some project plans we put in a risk that identifies a certain subject matter expert as a critical person to the success of the project.

But, what do we do about a person that is critical to the ongoing success of an organization?  They may have a small part in a number of projects, or they are a subject matter expert that keeps everything running smoothly because they “just know what to do.”  Almost by definition, we can’t have a plan to replace the person’s knowledge. But, what have we done to minimize the pain the organization might incur if that person is suddenly gone?

I know of one organization that had two people that knew “what to do” for a specific product line – and only those two knew.  They both left the company at about the same time.  Suddenly, the organization didn’t know what to do to produce that product.  They had to recreate the process from the beginning and it cost them lots of money to find the suppliers, manufacturers and create the internal processes to produce a relatively simple product.  They thought it was so simple that they never bothered to get the knowledge of how to do it.  It turns out that the reason is seemed simple was that these two people had figured it out and just “knew what to do”.

While you can’t ever 100% be ready you can do some preparation and planning.  For example, you can try to document what they do and how they do it.  You can try to put as much of the work into a system (computerized or other) so that it is at least in a framework for somebody else.

But, at a minimum, there should at least be a general plan about what to do if a critical person suddenly leaves.

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