Why Teams Need Their "All-stars" to Take Time Off

Published on March 9th, 2020

Brent was the hero of the IT department.

When shit hit the fan, he was the goto guy to fix anything and everything. Server outage? Get Brent. Security breach? Get Brent. He had an almost Jedi-like ability to diagnose and solve problems.

Nothing could get done without Brent.

Brent was the villain of the company.

When shit hit the fan, managers would rip problems away from other people and hand them to Brent. Server outage? Call Brent. Security breach? Get Brent. Entire teams of competent engineers would sit idly by.

Nothing could get done without Brent.

The previous paragraphs summarize the overarching theme of the book The Phoenix Project. In a culture that celebrates all-stars and 10X engineers, the book highlights how these miracle workers soon become single points of failure and bottleneck the speed of an entire company. We celebrate their late-night heroics in solving critical problems. We are blind to the fact these heroics are often the cause of said critical outages. Without the ability for knowledge to get socialized and workload to get distributed, the company will always be limited in what it can achieve with the efforts of Brent alone.

Why Your Team Needs to Require Time Off

At a minimum, time off helps avoid burnout. Much has been written on this topic, so I’ll summarize that this is critical to avoid in ensuring the long term health of the individual. It also limits the risk of them quitting.

But there’s another, often overlooked benefit to the team and company. Removing an all-star performer from the roster for a day (or a week) acts as a forcing function to remove the bottleneck. Healthy teams and organizations do not have single points of failure. They remove the dependency on a single person and build systems that multiple people can successfully operate. This builds resiliency and anti-fragility in the organization.

Yes, this is not possible in all situations. If a person his the brand (think Oprah), there is no way to train an understudy to take over. If you’re starting a new company and have 1-3 total team members, you may not have the luxury (yet) of being able to distribute the workload. Still, just because you can’t doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be thinking about it in your own situation.

If you catch yourself saying, “we’d be screwed if this person quit,” then you already know you have a potential problem. It might be necessary to take the painful step of encouraging them to take a day (or week) off to start experiencing the pain of what can’t be done without that person. Only then will you be motivated enough to begin addressing these gaps.

And as a self-check, if you find yourself saying, “I can’t take a day off because X, Y, or Z couldn’t be done without me,” then you really need to make this a priority.

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CXO of Atomic Form. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.