Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency

Reviewed on , book by Tom DeMarco

Great book on building organizations that operate with the slack required to innovate and treat its employees well: “The book shows managers how to make their organizations slightly less efficient but enormously more effective.”

Knowledge work requires deep immersion and the organization must make room for it. The industry is recovering from an extreme response to slow, massive corporations that’s carried into the new millennium:

“The principal resource needed for invention is slack. When companies can’t invent, it’s usually because their people are too damn busy.”

If every worker has a massive incoming pile, work moves through the organization slower—this is the smell of blooming bureaucracy. The book questions leadership tenets: is aggressive scheduling really productive? If you tried to build a house in a week and your Sunday delivery didn’t arrive, what will the 50 workers do on the Monday? “[..] if there is no reasonable probability of finishing 20 or 30 percent ahead of schedule—the schedule is a goal, not an estimate”

Speed has downsides: Ships sail at a prudent pace, too fast and you risk damaging the sails and human error increases as fatigue sets in (too slow and you lose momentum). At the right dosage, however, it can be an incredibly productive thing: Calling a weekend sprint with the team over pizza and late-night Chinese can make corporate heroes. However, only when called with impeccable timing and a huge trust reserve—if the Monday deadline is not met, it’s a moral disaster. Working late is similar, and neither are productive in the long run. Projects are measured in days and not workhours for a reason in knowledge work, our daily mental capacity is finite.

Leadership happens everywhere in the organization, and that’s the sign of a thriving, healthy one. Networks flow up, down, left and right through the white space on the org chart. The stars are those with the most responsive networks: “a star, on average, would receive answers in twenty minutes, while the norm for the whole laboratory was more like four hours”. The implementation of change comes from below, while the incentive may come from above. To make the system responsive to change, all parts of the puzzle must feel ownership of their process. Who do you think will be most sympathetic to change, the Volvo workers who build the cars from nothing as a team, or the classic Taylorism (i.e. segmented work) motor factory? Especially with automation challenging the latter production protocol:

“When the new automation is in place, there is less total work to be done by the human worker, but what work is left is harder. That is the paradox of automation: It makes the work harder, not easier.”

Management is hard, and often learned on the job moving from something with more measurable productivity, and often it’s easy to sink back into the work as a relief—but it’s really a retreat. Training of a manager follows the same rule as for a more quantitative discipline: slow practise of a task. A callow manager shouldn’t be expected to get a project done in as little time as the more experienced.

The book concludes with a chapter on risk, with the main points being that the analysis of risk is paramount, and has to be owned—if it’s everybody’s responsibility, it becomes nobody’s:

“The only new initiative you can afford to take on today is one that is full of risk. It’s got to be something that thrusts you into a new market or exploits a brand-new technology, one that transforms your company at the same time that it transforms your clients and the way they work. If you identify any project as risk-free, or even relatively risk-free, cancel it.”