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Book Review: Slack

According to Tom DeMarco, author of Slack and a management consultant, slack at all levels is necessary to make an organization work effectively and grow. Slack is extra capacity of human resources, and is often the target of zealous and short-term minded cost-cutters in search of efficiency.

DeMarco makes it clear that organizations with slack have increased agility, better retention of key personnel, improved ability to invest and capacity for sensible risk taking. Below are ways slack can be preserved and used, as well as management insights that usually are not taught in schools.

1. Money is fungible, but people aren't. Efficiency experts don't appreciate the people part of this statement. Because of that they tend to favor matrix roles where one person reports to multiple individuals or departments and serves none of them well. Task switching is the root of this. Switching tasks creates busyness and penalizes efficiency. The switching penalty is comprised of mechanics of moving to a new task, rework due to inopportunity switching, immersion time for deep work, emotional frustration and loss of teamwork.

2. Healthy organizations decentralize and spread control. In essence, control can be slack like human resources can be slack.

3. Adding "helpers" into teams to facilitate mundane tasks and information sharing can lead to performance improvement by virtue of adding slack. Unfortunately traditional management views this role as administrative overhead and are usually the first to be cut.

4. Organizations are continuously in flux. They cannot be programmed using Management by Objectives, or linear equations.

5. Pressure by management to accelerate performance is inelastic. Tim Lister: "People under time pressure don't think faster." Think rate is fixed. Potential to respond to pressure is severely limited. This concept applies to aggressive workflow scheduling - it doesn't result in accelerated performance. It applies to overtime incentives - overtime has bad side effects such as reduced quality, burnout, turnover, wasted normal time. It applies to culture of fear of failure - employees guard against drawing unpleasant attention. It also applies to quality programs - quality programs perversely optimizes for standardization and disempowers growth.

6. Management is hard to learn, especially since it is poorly taught. Philosophies like "Quantity has a quality all its own" (attributed to Lenin) lead organizations astray from world-class results.

7. Vision gives organizations with slack alignment toward the assertion of "who we are", the "reason for being", and "what we are all about". Leadership conveys the vision, follows-up the vision with action, and people sign on to the vision and model the behaviors. Leaders also give trust in advance to people and let them experiment applying the vision, learning from mistakes, and refining the vision's practical meaning. This is the Parents' Rule: Always give trust slightly in advance of demonstrated trustworthiness.

In summary: Slack is the lubrication that makes growth, vision, leadership, timing possible.

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