Jun 2 2010

What Is Your Bus Number?

A bus number (also known as truck or lorry number) is a term used to describe the long term organizational stability of a project.  It boils down to: “How many team members would have to get hit by a bus before the project would be unable to continue?”  A bit dark, yes, but a useful metaphor for thinking about the distribution of knowledge/expertise within a given project.  When any one person in that project gets hit by the proverbial bus, a certain amount of institutional knowledge will be lost (the lower the bus number, the higher the loss), and a certain amount of time/money generally will be spent trying to regain it, either by the remaining team members, or through new hires.

What I find especially interesting about this question “What is your bus number?”, is not the bus analogy (a similar idea has been expressed using starfish and spiders*), but the semantic meaning of the word “your”.  For example, if “you” are an organization, then it is in your best interest to have a high bus number for your respective projects, so that as the natural turnover of employees occurs, your projects are able to continue on smoothly without a significant loss or setback in institutional knowledge.  However, if “you” are an employee, you have been taught that it is in your best interest to become indispensable to a company or project in order to achieve maximum job security and upwards mobility.  At this individual level, it’s in your best interest for projects that you participate in to have a low bus number, so long as you are included in that number.

It would appear that there’s an incentive mismatch here between employers and employees, one that is especially apparent during tough economic times when employees become bullish on job security, job applicants are taught to make themselves indispensable, and employers must somehow cut down project sizes without losing too much institutional knowledge.

For companies out there, have you seen this bus number conflict in your project, and if so, how are you dealing with it?  For those employees unfortunate (or fortunate?) enough to be cursed by impending vehicular distaster, how is life as a “Bus boy (or girl)”?

*Thanks to Losang and Tashi at Machik for pointing out the comparison