Single Point of Failure: One Person Can Ruin the Team
Every law enforcement agency faces a leadership challenge: single point of failure (SPOF), an “element or part of a system for which no backup (redundancy) exists and the failure of which will disable the entire system.”1 All of us have met the one person who seemingly knows everything about how the organization operates and provides input critical for success. Maybe the IT wizard who built your records management system? Your only liaison to another agency? The individual who writes every grant? What would you do without them?
SPOFs pose consequences for any system striving for high availability or reliability, whether in business or law enforcement. Such people can become so essential that they make themselves seemingly irreplaceable. Leaders must identify them and take action.
Many law enforcement professionals strive to become experts in particular areas. Our typically competitive personalities naturally push us to be the best in whatever endeavor we undertake. In nearly every division, section, or unit, one person usually “holds all the cards.” This individual may prove the most dependable and capable. However, that employee also may share unique information reluctantly. This poses a problem for other team members who need that knowledge to accomplish their mission.
Perhaps a detective has cultivated the most reliable informant base and keeps it private. Maybe an administrative assistant does not let anyone else access the chief’s calendar. A senior patrol officer may sway the opinion of the squad.
Experts prove valuable because of their job-related knowledge and abilities. They would not establish themselves as SPOFs otherwise. However, when only they have the skills related to what they do, they become inherently unreliable in law enforcement agencies, which operate around the clock all year. No one can remain on duty or available every minute of every day, yet a police department must respond to every situation that arises regardless of when.
Addressing the Issue
As a leader you can eliminate an SPOF by following certain steps. First, you must critically examine your team, including the role every member plays. Can anyone else do what the SPOF does? If you answered no, you have identified an SPOF. Nothing we do is so complex that someone else cannot learn it.
Second, once you identify the SPOF, you must fix the problem—this can prove challenging. Some will gladly abdicate the responsibility burdening them. Others may resist because they have grown attached to the esteem or benefits of their position. You will have to judge the best way to handle an SPOF on your team. A suggested course of action may prove helpful.
1) Conduct a job analysis for the position.
2) Identify key tasks to share.
3) Meet with the SPOF to discuss the issues.
4) Explain why such employees harm the team.
5) Ask the individual who they consider ready to learn the position.
6) Allow time for someone else to learn the skills.
7) Provide encouragement.
8) Thank the SPOF for contributions provided.
You may find criticizing others easier than judging yourself. Therefore, you must honestly assess whether you, as leader, are the SPOF on your team. By default, the hierarchical structure of law enforcement organizations places leaders in a position that makes it easy to serve as the central repository of crucial information. If you do not actively share your knowledge, you will set your team up for failure. Ask yourself a couple of questions.
1) Do I have a backup? Make sure you communicate what you know with at least one subordinate team member who can cover for you.
2) Does that employee have a backup? Any members you pick also should share what they have learned. Lead by example. As a leader, you must guard against SPOFs. To that end, show your team how you prevent such a situation in your own leadership role.
Agencies with a single point of failure face numerous hazards that ultimately may compromise public safety. Leaders must ensure each member in their department has a backup ready to perform when a crisis occurs. They must critically assess their team, identify any presence of an SPOF, and correct the issue. Having multiple employees trained in particular responsibilities proves crucial in a profession, like law enforcement, where lives can end in a matter of seconds. Effective leaders ensure their team can carry on regardless of what scenario unfolds.
Lieutenant Joshua Judah with the Louisville, Kentucky, Metropolitan Police Department prepared this Leadership Spotlight.