13 No Bench

If you’ve ever set a second alarm clock or stashed some extra money in your glove compartment, “just in case,” you know you were practicing the most sensible kind of risk management. Things go wrong, and the way you protect yourself is to have some duplication of resource.

If you run a project team made up of professional knowledge workers, losing a key person is likely to be your most conspicuous risk. So of course you have an understudy or two tucked away, haven’t you? Maybe just one or two people with a range of skills that would allow them to step in easily for any one of the project principals? No? Really? How can this be?

The reason you don’t have reserves is that they cost money. (Pay attention here, this is important.) If reserves were free, you’d have a bunch of them, but they aren’t, so you don’t. The dictates of efficiency require that you utilize as few people as possible to do the work that needs to be done. A starvation economy may not be much fun, but it does make efficient use of resources, doesn’t it?

The problem with this reasoning is that it is all about money and not at all about time. On most development projects, time is a scarcer resource than money. Your project, at some point in the future, may find itself short on time, and when that happens, you and the management above you will wish you had the opportunity to spread around a little cash in order to buy some time. But that late in the project, opportunities to buy time are few.

Having some staff “on the bench” is potentially a way to trade money for time when a key person leaves. If you apply these reserves thoughtfully, you may be able to partially duplicate some of the key project skills. You will by definition extend your team size beyond minimum cost, but your reserves won’t be idle. They will be somewhat overqualified for the work assigned to them while on reserve, since they possess the skills required to step in as understudies, if needed. The advantage is that when you do lose someone, an acceptable replacement may already be on-site and ready to move rapidly into the role. Your project will lose less time this way than if you only begin to search for a replacement after you lose a team member.