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

“We have become so obsessed with getting rid of people who are burdened with the characterization overhead that we have ended up with organizations where many high-priced knowledge workers and managers are spending as much as a quarter of their time being their own overhead. Is this an economy?”

Slack - the idea of “slack” in a system, inefficiency in the most positive sense, that allows for change and creativity within an organization.

  • The Cost of Efficiency
    • “Efficient” organizations are often the most fragile, examples being flat reporting structures or matrix management
      • The author argues against the fungibility of workers and the costs that partitioning of workers across projects
      • Matrix management is particularly troubling because it results in switch costs inefficiencies and a loss of team binding effect
      • By reducing slack, work must queue in individuals inboxes, and by that feature a unit of work will move slower through the system since no one will have an empty queue
      • Individuals are perversely incentivized to maintain a queue in order to not look idle relative to ones peers
      • The author estimates their is a 15% penalty for time sharing a knowledge worker across projects
  • Knowledge workers are motivated by career-growth autonomy and control over their work product
    • In order to control, you have to give it up. This is control slack.
  • Slack is the way you invest in change. Providing the slack to be responsive and make changes.
  • Aside from the inherent worth of human capital, it’s also important to consider that for a project leader, replacement costs may not even be worth it. I.e. it may make more sense to limp along with a project rather than try to replace and onboard a team member.
  • Project Management
    • Pressure and schedule
    • “Aggressive Schedule” is code word for a schedule that is patently absurd, but not demonstrably absurd.
    • Overcommitting, i.e. creating an aggressive schedule, is assumed to not have any down sides, but have a ludicrous schedule means you allocate resources and plan in a way unnatural to a realistic schedule.
    • A missed schedule indicts the planners, not the workers.
  • The cost of turnover must be accounted for and the “benefits” of overtime overlook this costs
  • Overworked managers are doing things they shouldn’t be doing
  • Communication
    • Communication occurs in the white space, rather than the dictated vertical lines of an org chart, across teams and amongst peers.
  • Slack is needed to provide the space for training to occur.

First law of bad mangement

“If something isn’t working, do more of it." - Jerry Weinberg

Second law of bad management

Put yourself in as your own utility infielder.

Put another way, this is the axiom that technical managers shouldn’t code (write production code regularly).

The best managers are those known for their powers of persuasion, negotiation, good-will, and large reservoirs of trust

Change Management

  • During change, success is less clear, and therefore management becomes much less about telling people what to do and have them do it.
  • Change requires incentive at the beginning of the project/change (i.e through calling in trust / markers) that the change will be worth embracing the change

Given the nature of modern work environment, efforts that do not employee a risk management strategy are either not taking enough risk (therefore not work doing) or taking risks blithely.

Trying to put standard processes in place for knowledge work are empty causes which dictate how to do every aspect except the hard part.

What defines quality?

  1. It is unique; when it first appeared, it was utterly unique.
  2. It redefines the whole notion of photo processing.
  3. It even redefines the way you think about photos. (Don’t throw away that snap that is great of Helen but awful of Murray. Just merge it with another that has a better Murray.)
  4. It allows you to do things that were barely imaginable before.
  5. It is deeply thought out; in particular, its use of channels is almost infinitely extensible and usable in ever-increasing numbers of ways.
  6. It is fully implemented; for example, its “undo” feature can undo even the most complex action.
  7. Its human interface sticks in the mind—you almost never need to use the manual.
  8. It is revolutionary in the way it affords an interface for third-party add-on providers.
  9. It is solid as a rock.

Modern quality programs focus too much on removing defects and too little on improving the actual quality of the product

The higher the quantity, the lower the quality generally

“Quantity has a quality all its own.” —Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin)”

Efficiency vs. Effectiveness

  • Organizational drift

Organizations will drift in a direction, appearing to lead can mean just directing the organization to head in that direction.

Management By Objectives (MBO)