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Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency Paperback – April 9, 2002
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Another entry in the small but growing management library that suggests purposely slowing down and smelling the roses could actually boost productivity in today's 24/7 world, Tom DeMarco's Slack stands out because it is aimed at "the infernal busyness of the modern workplace." DeMarco writes, "Organizations sometimes become obsessed with efficiency and make themselves so busy that responsiveness and net effectiveness suffer." By intentionally creating downtime, or "slack," management will find a much-needed opportunity to build a "capacity to change" into an otherwise strained enterprise that will help companies respond more successfully to constantly evolving conditions. Focusing specifically on knowledge workers and the environment in which they toil, DeMarco addresses the corporate stress that results from going full-tilt, and offers remedies he thinks will foster growth instead of stagnation. Slack, he contends, is just the thing to nurture the out-of-box thinking required in the 21st century, and within these pages, he makes a strong case for it. --Howard Rothman --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
DeMarco (Peopleware), a management consultant, says that in today's competitive, fast-moving economy, managers work far less effectively than before. Responding to restructuring and staff reductions, managers overemphasize deadlines and rush employees, sacrificing quality. Instead, says DeMarco, executives should encourage teamwork, discourage competition and allow training time. Unfortunately, tedious, jargon-heavy writing dulls DeMarco's worthwhile message.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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For knowledge work, I generally agree with his main points, and I have gained some inspiration in some other areas as well (for example, some specific cases where matrix management might actually be optimal).
However, some other reviewers have misunderstood DeMarco's main point. Efficiency and flexibility are opposite ends of the spectrum. If you want real agility, you have to give up some efficiency, and the opposite is true too. This isn't a matter of work less and get more done (aside from issues of long-term overtime, where it is a valid point) but rather work a little less and regain some capacity to change direction.
The second point though is that without slack, one cannot adequately manage risks. This slack not only gives you the ability to change direction to avoid risks, but it provides you with extra resources to overcome temporary and unexpected challenges.
In general, I think these are important points and I think that most companies would do well to at least consider these two points.
I totally disagree with the one bad reviewer who claims the book is below the bar of even anecdotal, and boring. On the contrary, much of what is argued here is a logical, or purely rhetorical position, but that is the part that is the most refreshing! Whereas Peopleware may be more comprehensive, it is also less bold and rhetorically less daring. I love to see someone like DeMarco, who has proven all he needs to, instead of just churn out another episode in his established realm, provoke, argue, and show the amount of passion this book contains. Only someone who considers rhetoric sinful could find this book boring.
That said, this book is also not from left field: it owes a lot to Lean, et al, on the biz and IT process side, and it is also of a piece with other writings like Mythical Man Month. Personally, I think the most important thing about this book is that it is original in its approach and size, etc.: computer science, folks, is not a science, and the fact that it has been controlled by science people all these years, is one of the reasons it has denied many of the hugely important aspects of its reality, e.g. psychology, sociology, etc. We desperately need more books like this that are broadly rhetorical, small, quick reads, that can penetrate into the more densely forested parts of the realm.
I have long believed the drive to long hours with people working under the gun and advocating multi-tasking in business is fundamentally flawed. Tom shows good basics and data to clearly illustrate why these practices can get you into trouble if not managed. Kanban usage in software was not in vogue when Tom wrote this book, but it it is a good methodology to help put many of this ideas into practice.
If you manage software teams this is a MUST read in my opinion
This concept is promoted by Eliyahu Goldratt and his Theory of Constraints and in his books like The Goal. Goldratt argued that in in the case of discrete manufacturing-where individual goods are produced in a continual but not continuous process through the discrete application of heterogeneous transformations-as the utilization (or efficiency) of the individual steps approaches their maximum, the productivity (or throughput) of the system as a whole approaches a minimum. Now, knowledge work (like software development - my industry) looks a lot like discrete manufacturing. You have a set of inputs of varying quality: requirements, best practice documents, etc. In a factory, the machines that perform a step in the manufacturing process often differ - they could be different models, have different maintenance histories, have different tolerances with regards to inputs or throughput, or produce at different levels of quality. Tom DeMarco reminds us that knowledge workers are similarly not fungible. Not only does each individual have their own specialties and deficits but people have task switching costs analogous to the set up costs with factory machines.
Anyway, this is my desert island management book - the one that's all depth with none of the fluff, and the one that I study for guidance with each management challenge.