Have you considered what knowledge you will lose if a key employee leaves? There are several strategies and tactics you can employ to retain knowledge before it walks out the door. These strategies and tactics not only mitigate risk to your organization. They also give people opportunities to expand their skills, increase their professional mastery, and make greater contributions to your organization. Sharing critical knowledge is better for everyone!

Eliminate Single Points of Failure

When only one person in the company knows how to do something, your company is at great risk. Beyond a potential planned departure, you never know when someone may become unavailable. Unexpected leave, illness, injury, or a need to terminate their employment are a few scenarios where that single point of failure—one person’s unique knowledge—will hurt your team. You need to ensure that knowledge is shared.

Identify areas where one person knows everything

Make a list of all critical skills and tasks in your team. Then create a simple matrix to identify which team members are proficient in those skills and tasks. This quick and simple exercise will give you insight into where single points of failure exist in your team. If only one person knows something, you can retain knowledge by having that person share their knowledge with others.

Provide opportunities for cross-training

Once you know what critical knowledge is at risk of being lost or inaccessible, you can have your single points of failure help cross-train others. You can even use the skills matrix to identify which team members currently possess few critical skills. They are likely great targets for cross-training: lesser-skilled workers may get a confidence boost from learning a new skill, especially one they know is critical to the team’s success.

Cross-training can take many forms. The simplest approach is to have the learning team member shadow the experienced team member. Pairing up and adopting an apprenticeship dynamic for a few hours or few days will give the learning team member plenty of opportunities to practice their new skill. The experienced team member, in those hours or days of training, will be able to focus on ensuring the learning team member understands the new skill. The cost of this approach is minimal, as the two team members can continue carrying all the work they are typically responsible for, but can share the load. They can concentrate of helping each other understand the particulars of their job roles while ensuring the work they are typically responsible for is acceptably completed.

Share your single points of failure and ask your team for help

If you’d prefer that the team takes responsibility and comes up with their own plan to retain knowledge, ask for help. If you express where the needs are and ask for volunteers, team members can choose the skills they are most interested in learning. This approach will increase the engagement level—the emotional commitment people feel to your organization—of interested team members while they learn the critical skills needed to build a more resilient team.

Promote Knowledge Sharing

Once you identify the need to retain knowledge, you will need to consistently and regularly encourage your team to participate in knowledge sharing opportunities. These opportunities include the aforementioned cross-training, plus documentation, delegation, and even manufactured (“dry run”) opportunities to practice new skills.

Maintain a knowledge management system

A knowledge management system, such as an internal wiki or document store, is a place for the team to share knowledge. They can reference the knowledge management system when they need to learn how to perform a common task. They can also contribute to the knowledge management system when they undertake new tasks.

Building up great documentation for critical work takes time. It often feels counter-intuitive. Why waste time writing things down when important work needs to get done quickly? The answer is that failing to write things down will permit similar emergencies to continue happening. Documenting and sharing knowledge prior to the next emergency will help your team approach the next emergency with a cool head. If there’s a process for handling big known problems, the problems will feel less big. Employees will be less likely to make mistakes on critical tasks.

Require documentation for critical tasks

A key aspect of the knowledge management system is actually… Entering your knowledge into a system. Again, the system can be simple. A company wiki, team playbook, or a shared folder of checklists and process flow diagrams will do. The only things the system must do are allow people to create, share, and discover knowledge. Helping your team develop the discipline of documenting tasks, though, can be difficult. When first adopted, documenting tasks feels like extra work. People have to (1) understand the value of doing it, (2) remember to it do, (3) make time to do it, and then (4) actually do it.

Encourage people to write documentation as they complete tasks. This way, the task will be fresh on their mind. Since they just completed the task, it will be easier to write down everything that’s needed to complete the task. This means less time spent thinking about what to write.

Provide templates or outlines for documentation

Additionally, you can help team members speed up their documentation by providing a template. If you offer some standard headings to fill out in a new wiki page, for example, team members’ work becomes simpler. For example, you may encourage people to follow a knowledge base article outline like this:

  • Task name
  • Brief description of the task
  • Preconditions for the task (under what circumstances do you perform this task?)
  • Requirements for the task (what resources are needed to complete the task?)
  • Steps to complete the task
  • Expected outcomes from completing the task
  • Common problems and gotchas
  • Who to talk to if you get stuck

Eventually, hopefully, you’ll see the “who to talk to” section grow as more people gain experience with each critical task.

Encourage new employees to update incorrect documentation

New team members are the most likely to see a problem with fresh eyes. They haven’t walked through your documentation before. They’ve never seen others complete tasks. Therefore, they are the most likely to hit problems or identify holes in documentation. More experienced team members may gloss over holes in documentation because they know how to handle them.

When you encourage a new employee to improve incorrect or incomplete documentation, you are giving them a purpose. Oftentimes, new employees feel like they are not providing much value in their early days. However, this documentation task demonstrates their value. They also see its value because they just personally experienced the pain of incomplete documentation. They can complete the task, update the documentation, and feel satisfied that they left the team in a better position than when they started.

Offer regular opportunities to learn new skills and concepts

Also work to recognize when you can give someone else a chance to increase their mastery in a new skill. It’s difficult to recognize every opportunity you have for this, but I use a mental trick to help me find opportunities. When someone asks you for assistance, ask yourself “why can’t they handle this?” The question is sometimes unfair or unreasonable, but it may prompt you to think differently about the problem at hand. You can certainly offer to do the task for someone, but why not teach them to fish? Otherwise, they’ll come back to you later asking for help on the exact same thing.

You can also manufacture opportunities for people to learn new skills. Having people do their own needed work—with guidance from an experienced team member, of course!—when they need it is the best way to help them learn the new skill. However, you can also design your own opportunities. For example, an IT department may run a disaster recovery dry run as part of a quarterly test plan. Having new employees run through the disaster recovery plan as part of new employee training can help them gain skills and experience. Otherwise, the same person may end up running the disaster recovery plan every time, creating a single point of failure in your team.

Prepare a Succession Plan

While eliminating single points of failure accomplishes any near-term goals you may have for preventing a brain drain, also consider the long view. You will not always be in a leadership position in this organization. What happens then? Is someone on your team ready to step in for you? What about your right hand? Is someone ready to step in for them?

Identify a right hand

First and foremost, focus on identifying your own right hand. This should be a person you can trust to do your job in your absence. This ensures that your team’s largest single point of failure—their leader—is no longer a concern.

Now, you may not find someone who is ready to step in unassisted for you today. However, there is almost always someone on your team with the potential to learn the skills you need in a replacement. Identifying a right hand is the first step in the long commitment of sharing your knowledge and experience with your ideal successor.

This is not simply an exercise in finding your replacement for handling things when you retire. You are looking for someone who can lighten your load. No one likes going on a business trip only to be interrupted by urgent work back at the home office. It’s a waste of time and resources. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could remain focused at a conference or even take a vacation—gasp!—without constantly checking your phone?

Surprisingly, some people view having a right hand as a threat. If your right hand can do your job, won’t they replace you? However, I’ve never seen this concern from someone who actually has a right hand. Instead, the supervisor reaps the benefits of more flexibility, mental space, and focus on higher-level tasks they are more interested in. That grunt work you used to do is now someone’s opportunity to learn and develop skills they need to further their career aspirations. When your biggest problem becomes you being in the way of your right hand’s next promotion, you’ll probably feel more relief and excitement for them than fear for yourself. Plus, you’ll probably deserve a promotion for your excellent development of company leadership!

Help others identify their right hand

The same concept holds true all the way down the line in your organization. Anyone in a leadership position should identify a right hand to work with. The ability to delegate important work to someone you can trust is the most beneficial thing you can do for yourself as a leader. Additionally, it helps prevent a breakdown in critical knowledge in the chain of leadership. If the next person down the line knows what the previous person knew, you will have a very resilient management structure that can survive any single departure.

Test the waters with your right hand

Give your right hand the opportunity to handle important tasks for you while you are available. Similar to the cross-training tactics mentioned earlier, this gives you an opportunity to help if they get stuck. You can let them lead the way, but remain attentive and available in case they need guidance or advice.

Explicitly delegate to your right hand

When you are delegating an important task to someone, ensure they understand what you are doing and why. Explain why the task is important, why you typically do it, and that you really need this person to learn how to do the task too. Simply assigning work is not enough. If you take the time to explain a task’s importance to you and acknowledge that this is part of the person’s professional development as your right hand, the task will carry more weight than it might otherwise.

Refer others to your right hand

When others in your team come to you for advice or guidance, refer them to your right hand when appropriate. Feel free to tell them that this is part of their leadership development, not you refusing to help. You can also offer to follow up with the team member after they go to your right hand for assistance, if you feel it is wanted and appropriate for the situation. The intent is not to enforce a pecking order in your organization, but rather to give your right hand opportunities to develop their own style of leadership through real-life leadership situations.

Retain Knowledge to Promote Employee Engagement

Knowledge sharing and advancement opportunities are important aspects of employee engagement in any organization. When you institute a culture of learning and retain knowledge for critical tasks, you give people a way to expand their skills and make bigger contributions.