Don't Get Caught With Your Pants Down

Don't Get Caught With Your Pants Down

A few years back I got caught on an extremely complex project with a resource shortage. It didn’t look like I had a resource shortage…I had an army of people, all working like fiends. I had all the technical and business expertise I could possibly need. Everyone had a strong plan, and estimates were all validated multiple times. On the surface, everything looked good.

However, one resource was a single point of failure. She had very specialized knowledge in one area that none of the other 100-odd people on my team possessed. Worse, she didn’t report to me directly, but rather spent most of her time tucked into a corner giving her updates to her manager, who diluted her updates to his manager, who passed them to me, along with updates from many other resources.

To be frank, I never saw it coming.

Because she was the sole person with crucial knowledge, other project resources sought her advice. Often. While she had provided her estimates through to the project, she wasn’t able to meet them because of all the other demands on her time. Other resources dragged her along to meetings, and her work bogged down to a crawl.

Thinking I might be angry, her manager covered up for her and didn’t pass accurate information along in his status reports to his manager. By the time I noticed there was a problem, it cost the project weeks of catchup, which impacted other parallel projects.

I swore that wouldn’t happen again.

Knowledge Area Self-Assessment

And so I built this matrix in Excel and have used it on all my projects ever since. It’s a very simple tool, and while it’s subjective and relies on self-assessment, it’s a great way to quickly identify any knowledge gaps or single points of failure, and it takes no time to complete. You can take it and use it however you like.

Work with a trusted subject matter expert on your team. List important knowledge areas down the side, and break them into “domain” and “technical” categories. List your project team members across the top. Have each team member rate themselves on each knowledge area according to the legend at the top. You’ll likely find clusters of people around certain knowledge areas. But some knowledge areas may stand out as needing your help. You’ll be able to identify risks, and take steps to plug any holes before they become a problem.


I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.