Everyone is Replaceable
I’ve stressed this point in every band I’ve been in, every team I’ve played on, and every business I’ve worked for – everyone is replaceable. Not as a human… I truly believe that every person is unique. We are the only ones who can leave our mark on the world. No one else can.
But as members of a collective, we are completely, utterly replaceable.
This is a key lesson from Moneyball.
The important thing is not to recreate the individual.
The important thing is to recreate the aggregate.
– Michael Lewis, Moneyball (page 141)
When star hitter Jason Giambi left the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane was smart enough to realize that he didn’t have to replace Giambi with one hitter. That’s too much responsibility for one person; too much risk; too much investment.
Instead he looked at the output of the team with and without Giambi, and asked, “How can I improve enough – at many positions – to make up what we lose with Giambi leaving”. This was, believe it or not, a radical thought process in baseball.
We make the same mistake in business.
When I was managing training in Japan, I kept a database of engineers and the tasks they were competent at. Very few people thought the database was interesting, but I liked looking at our skills inventories across regions and customers when I planned training.
One day, a distraught manager entered my office, “We’re losing our best engineer! What will we do?” I went to the database and matched her skills inventory against other engineers in her office.
“Well”, I said, “She is a great engineer. We’re going to lose a lot of depth, but we’re only losing four skills that aren’t duplicated in that office. As long as we have her transfer those skills before she leaves, we’re only losing depth.”
“Really?” He came over to look at my database.
“That’s not so bad”, he said. “We can do that”.
Now, it may sound somewhat disheartening to learn that anyone can be replaced, but I find it reassuring, freeing, and motivating:
- Reassuring to know that someone’s hard work won’t disappear when they leave.
- Freeing to know that I don’t have to carry any guilt complex about moving on to new projects, and to know that no employee can ‘hold me over the barrel’ with threats of leaving.
- Motivating because it challenges to prove my own rule wrong. I work twice as hard to make myself irreplaceable, because I know it’s virtually impossible. This is a cat and mouse game by the way. I spend every day making myself irreplaceable, while my manager spends every day insuring that I am replaceable.
It’s kind of a fun game, I think.
SMART as Hell Exercise:
- List: the skills, attributes, experiences, and competences that you possess that no one else on your team has. (If you’re a manager do this exercise for each of your employees).
- Calculate: How long would it take for someone to gain those skills, attributes, etc?
- Reflect: How replaceable – or irreplaceable – are you?
- Identify: ways that you can make yourself temporarily replaceable. And then do it again…
Share your observations, questions, and comments below.