Your solutions remind me a lot of what we in the business world think of as protecting the business against existential risk from the failure of individual human resources, cutely measured as a “bus factor” for the number of people who have to get hit by a bus before your business is in trouble. A great source of information about techniques for dealing with this, at least within a small business context, has for me been The E-Myth by Gerber, but you can also look at how continuity planning is done (although there the focus is usually on seemingly exceptional rather than normal events (though of course the exceptional is normal, and that’s the whole point of doing continuity planning)).
The “bus factor” you mention reminds me of “The Secret Life of Passwords” , a NYT article that discusses, among other things, how a financial services firm went about trying to guess business critical passwords after most of their employees were killed in the 9/11 attack.
Howard Lutnick, the chief executive of Cantor Fitzgerald, one of the world’s largest financial-services firms, still cries when he talks about it. Not long after the planes struck the twin towers, killing 658 of his co-workers and friends, including his brother, one of the first things on Lutnick’s mind was passwords. This may seem callous, but it was not.
Like virtually everyone else caught up in the events that day, Lutnick, who had taken the morning off to escort his son, Kyle, to his first day of kindergarten, was in shock. But he was also the one person most responsible for ensuring the viability of his company. The biggest threat to that survival became apparent almost immediately: No one knew the passwords for hundreds of accounts and files that were needed to get back online in time for the reopening of the bond markets. Cantor Fitzgerald did have extensive contingency plans in place, including a requirement that all employees tell their work passwords to four nearby colleagues. But now a large majority of the firm’s 960 New York employees were dead.
I don’t think it is realistic to aim for no relevant knowledge getting lost even if your company loses half of its employees in one day. A bus factor of five is already shockingly competent when compared to any company I have ever worked for, going for a bus factor of 658 is just madness.
Just to chime in with support, I read “The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It”. It is not obviously epistemically sound because it is offered more like “lore” than “science”. However it stayed with me, and seems to have changed how I approach organizational development, and I think I endorse the changed perspective.
One of the major concept handles that may have been coined in the book (or borrowed into the book thereby spreading it mnuch further and faster?) is the distinction between “working in your business versus working on your business”. A lot of people seem to only “work in”, not “work on”, and book makes the claim that this lack of going meta on the business often leads to burnout and business failure.
One thing to keep in mind is that since all debates are bravery debates and this specific community is often great at meta, it is also possible to make the opposite error… you can spend too much time working “on” an organization, and not enough “in” the organization, and the failures there look different. One of my heuristics for noticing if there is “too much organizational meta” is if the bathrooms aren’t clean.
One of my heuristics for noticing if there is “too much organizational meta” is if the bathrooms aren’t clean.
Heh, that feels right to me. Although I’d phrase that not necessarily as “evidence there is too much meta” so much as “evidence there is not enough object level.” (which may or may not point to the former, depending on context)
Another vote for E-Myth here. I somehow managed to pick it randomly off a bookstore shelf many years ago, long before I had ever done anything entrepreneurial myself (I was in HS or college at the time.) But it really stuck with me, and I still have my copy.