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Book Notes: Slack

Read On: Aug 2014
Reading Time: 7 hours
Rating: 9/10

Summary

Slack is the degree of freedom in a company that allows it to change. It could be something as simple as adding an assistant to a department, or letting high-priced talent spend less time at the photocopier and more time making key decisions. Slack could also appear in the way a company treats employees: Instead of loading them up with overwork, a company designed with slack allows its people room to breathe, increase effectiveness, and reinvent themselves.

In this book filled with creative learning tools and charts, Tom DeMarco teaches to make sense of the Efficiency/Flexibility quandary, run directly toward risk instead of away from it, strengthen the creative role of middle management, make change and growth and work together for even greater profits.

Notes

  • Change is always complicated and challenging, but in the super accelerated corporation, change of direction is almost impossible. The very improvement that the organization has made to go faster and cheaper have undermined its capacity to make any other kind of change.
  • The middle management has been removed in the name of efficiency. The main activity of those managers is reinvention. The restructurings have optimized the present steady state at the expense of the future. Change and reinvention require slack.
  • Money is fungible (replaceable), but people are not.
  • Fragmented knowledge workers may look busy, but a lot of their busyness is just thrashing, switching continually from one activity to another.
  • The “Hurry Up” mantra and an increased focus on busyness can end up causing people to slow down because they don’t want to look idle while waiting for input and put their job at risk.
  • When communication in an organization happens only over the hierarchy lines, it’s a sign that managers are trying to hold on to all control. This is inefficient and an insult to the people underneath.
    • If you are a manager/leader, don’t expect that the authority vested in you will be enough to impose your way regarding decisions that need to be made for work done by people under you. To be a good manager, you have to have some control slack. A good example is to make the decision making power loosely proportional to salary. If you have 10 people working for you and you make 25% more than each of them, you get 125 control points, and they get 100 points each.
  • The more successful a company is in extracting every bit of capacity from its worker, the more it exposes itself to turnover and employee loss. By designing a little slack into their lives, you can retain people longer.
  • The principle resource needed for invention is slack. When companies can’t invent, it’s usually because their people are too busy.
    • Slack is a kind of investment. Not all pennies saved are pennies earned.
  • People under time pressure don’t think faster. The long-term effect of too much pressure is demotivation, burnout and loss of key people. The best managers use pressure only rarely and never over extended periods.
  • The purpose of a schedule is planning, not goal setting. If a date is missed, the schedule was wrong. The people who set the schedule, not just the ones who fail to meet it, need to be held accountable.
  • The manager who makes use of overtime/sprint only occasionally is a hero, but he does need to have a huge reserve of trust to dip into.
  • Management skills are hard to master, making management itself hard. A lot of inexperienced managers respond by taking up non-managerial tasks that should be done by somebody else or not done at all.
  • Cutting out the inconsequential products can lead to quality improvement. Make less and choose much more carefully what you can make.
  • Tactics (efficiency) can be handled in isolation and are a lot easier to get right than strategy (effectiveness), but effectiveness is much more important.
  • Management by Objectives (do more of the same thing as last year) depends on maintaining status quo. This is hardly a recipe for success in the new economy.
  • You can’t grow if you can’t change at all. Without vision, a company can react, but it can’t pro-act. A successful visionary statement has elements of present truth, proposed future truth and perfectly walks the line between what is and what could be.
  • Leadership is the ability to enroll other people in your agenda. Lack of power is a great excuse for failure, but sufficient power is never a necessary condition for leadership. There is never sufficient power.
  • When you keep your head down and accept senseless direction (like Dilbert), you are part of the problem. It’s easy to blame the management, but it’s also necessary to blame the people who allow themselves to be managed badly.
  • You can’t make proactive change happen; the best you can do is to help it to happen. Change involves abandoning the old way of doing things that people have mastered and making them novices. People can make this change only if they feel safe. The safety that is required for essential change is assurance that noone will be mocked, demeaned, belittled while struggling to achieve renewed mastery. During change, failure should gain a person more respect, not less.
  • Leaders acquire trust by giving trust. The giving of trust is an enormously powerful gesture. The recipient gives back loyally as an almost autonomous response. Leaders give responsibility well before it is completely earned. Trust is given slightly in advance of demonstrated trustworthiness, but not too much in advance. You don’t want to set people up for failure.
  • A period of growth is the right time for a change as people are less resistant to it. During periods of decline, people are already anxious about their jobs and future, and this complicates introduction of change.
  • Change involves reinvention, which requires a deep involvement in the day-to-day business of the organization. This is the key role of middle management. They bring about reinvention during their free/slack time. Making it okay to take risks and succeed in risky endeavors requires that you also make it okay to fail.
  • Learning and Changing go hand in hand. The learning required for changing essential, self-definitional work is hard. It requires a learner, a facilitator, material and co-learners. When you are encouraged to learn something of significance to your self-image, it’s easy to dismiss the idea as preposterous in the absence of these things.
  • Teams provide an ideal learning environment, a place where coaching and being coached are integral parts of each day’s work.
    • In most companies, as people are promoted into management, they are expected to learn in complete isolation. They don’t have a coach, peers, co-learners or material. For learning to happen, middle managers need to listen and talk to each other.
    • Internal competition at middle management is destructive. Competition happens under authoritarian managers in slack-less organizations. Learning and reinvention takes time and these managers are obsessed with time, making learning impossible.
    • Training is hard without an extended period of practicing at a much slower-than-expected rate. To drive learning, drive out internal competition and take the time to practice different stages of learning.
  • In times of change, the reward has to come before the work. This might involve caching in on past favors and confidence earned by the managers.
  • Risk management is the explicit declaration of uncertainity. Aggregate risks are the potential overall failures. Risk management is about managing component/casual risks, sets of things that can go wrong and lead to aggregate failures. There are two aspects to risk management:
    • The plan has to precede materialization.
    • Some of the mitigation activities must also precede materialization.
  • Managing your risks requires that you go slower than breakneck speed. The difference between the time it takes you to arrive at “prudent speed” and the time it would take you at “breakneck speed” is your slack.
  • For good Risk Management:
    • There should be a published census of risks.
    • There should be a mechanism to elicit discover of new risks.
    • Risks should be quantified with probability, cost and schedule impact.
    • There should be a single person responsible for risk management.

Thoughts

This is my favorite kind of book. It talked about things that I have either not thought about at all, or had opposing views than those expressed in the book. This might be due to my lack of leadership/management experience, or me being an idiot in general, probably both. The book ended up changing my thinking (a lot), and gave me a lot to chew on. Having worked in a few different places as a consultant, I think more companies need to make this a required reading for their managers.

P.S More Book Notes here.

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