The Surprising Benefits of Slack

Find out why the pursuit of efficiency is killing our effectiveness and what you can do to turn this around.

In the previous blog post and accompanying video, I talked about the notion of using fear to motivate desired behavior and how that limits our creativity and narrows our perspective. The alternative of using positive emotions to motivate gave us something like play which boosts creativity and broadens our perspective. In this post and in the embedded video, I will expand on this dichotomy as I describe the concept of slack.

There have been many studies done on the benefits of slack. The Journal of Managerial Issues describes slack as excess resources that both cushion the organization from environmental changes and represent an opportunity for discretionary allocations, such as innovation activities.

Cornell University Ergonomics Research Lab measured the benefits to productivity when introducing slack into workers’ schedules, finding that workers alerted to take breaks were 13% more accurate in their work.

Tom DeMarco dedicated an entire book to the study of slack. In it, DeMarco tells the story of Sylvia the secretary. With Sylvia around, everything flows smoothly. One day, a consultant arrives to reduce cost through corporate restructuring. He measures Sylvia’s utilization and finds that she is busy only 43% of the time. The rest of the time she is available for whatever her manager or the team needs.

To improve her utilization above 43%, the consultant moves Sylvia into a pool of secretaries. He allocates 43% of her time to the original manager and the other 57% of her time to other managers. We now have someone busy 100% of the time. We now have more efficiency. But the now-slackless secretary is simply not as responsive as Sylvia used to be. She can’t get cracking on new tasks as they come up because she’s too busy.

DeMarco proposes that we obsess over efficiency because we think of knowledge workers more like galley slaves. “If your workers were galley slaves and your lever were a whip,” he says, “you might expect that applying the whip would make them pick up the work pace. More whipping makes them row faster until they just can’t row any faster because they are maxed out.”

Knowledge workers only have three options to respond to such pressure: eliminate wasted time, defer tasks that are not on the critical path, and stay late. But in a healthy knowledge worker organization, people don’t waste a lot of time anyway and the motivation toward meaningful accomplishment tends to steer them onto the critical path by default. So that leaves us with staying late, which takes us back to Henry Ford’s discovery of the folly of exceeding the 40-hour work week.

So how do we motivate knowledge workers? We need to let go of the notion of motivating by using fear. DeMarco cites a scene from In The Name of The Rose as an illustration of our attachment to using fear as a necessary motivator. The head librarian, Jorge, wishes to prevent the contents of Aristotle’s Treatise on Comedy from escaping to the population at large because it takes the position that laughter is an admirable and desirable thing. This, Jorge says, distracts the common person from fear, the most foresighted and most loving of the divine gifts. According to DeMarco, most organizations give fear the same prominent and respected position as Jorge would give it.

So what might we see if we move away from motivation by fear and start building slack deliberately into our organizations? According to DeMarco, this would give us three things: flexibility, retention, and capacity to invest. The flexibility it gives us is a capacity for ongoing organizational redesign. In this way, slack represents operational capacity sacrificed in the interests of long-term health.

Slack gives us better retention because its opposite is often the cause of turnover. A common feature of exit interviews is a sense that the departing person felt used. The more successful a company is in extracting every bit of capacity from its workers, the more it exposes itself to turnover.

Finally, there is the capacity to invest. According to DeMarco, a bankruptcy of inventiveness is often the result of a failure to set aside the resources necessary to let invention happen and the principal resource for invention is slack. When companies can’t invent, it’s usually because their people are too busy.

I would love to hear what you thought of this blog post and video, so feel free to comment below, on The K Guy Twitter, or on The K Guy Facebook fan page.