Being a “Single Point of Failure” is a problem, but not for the reason you think


I had my annual performance review a couple days ago, so let me start by telling you that this is the day of my year I stress over more than any other. I’m not alone in this. You do, too. But this year’s review was – and I say this with no amount of hyperbole – pretty fantastic. Not only did I receive positive marks, but my reviewing committee helped me identify places to grow and conversed with me about possible avenues to attain it.

But what sticks with me from that couple-hour conversation was a phrase used by a committee member: “Single Point of Failure.” As in: “We’re glad to see you’ve delegated well this year, so as to eliminate yourself as a single point of failure.”

I’m shocked I’d never heard this term before. Wikipedia defines it as:

A single point of failure (SPOF) is a part of a system that, if it fails, will stop the entire system from working. SPOFs are undesirable in any system with a goal of high availability or reliability, be it a business practice, software application, or other industrial system.

I’ve always used the term “bottleneck” to describe the tendency for one person to slow down or stop work from happening effectively. But an SPOF is different. The key word is: failure. If one person goes down, it all goes down. Not cool, bro.

In my office, I manage four staff. Three of them are full time. So one might think that eliminating myself as the SPOF is good because it allows the other staff members to be able to do their jobs without worrying that my failure will derail their work. That is true, but I don’t think it’s the most important reason I, as a boss, should do it. Again, the key word is: failure.

I have a rock solid belief that failure is a positive thing. I quote the Silicon Valley startup mantra ad nauseam: “Fail Fast. Fail Often. Fail Forward.” I have literally told my staff that if they are not failing, it is evidence to me that they are not doing anything. It means they’re not, you know, actually working. And that’s cause for dismissal. Failure is the only way we learn. I want them learning lessons quickly and often, and not making the same mistakes repeatedly.

So here’s the deal: If I am the Single Point of Failure, I am being incredibly selfish because I am not making space for my staff to learn and grow. And, in my opinion, that means I’m not, you know, actually doing my job. And that, too, is cause for dismissal.