Book Review: Slack, Getting past burnout, busywork, and the myth of total efficiency


TLDR

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Strengths

Less than 5% of all the 500+ books I have read get a five-star rating – this book is one that thoroughly deserves the rating! I think it is a must-read for anyone trying to drive impactful change – the lessons in the book made me rethink how I approach leadership and management.

The central thesis is that increasing busyness is not good for individuals and companies and these points are clearly and concisely driven home over multiple chapters. The concise writing contains many clear examples and metaphors; Tom DeMarco shines with his subtle but effective writing techniques; as an aspiring writer, I also appreciate the style and bounty of insightful and pithy quotes.

Weaknesses

  • Flow: Overall, the book read like a collection of multiple blog posts; some chapters were disjointed and did not build upon preceding chapters; this disrupted flow is most apparent in section 3.
  • Outdated theses: A couple of chapters were hard to reconcile with modern practices; e.g., the views on management by objectives and low-level workers were anachronistic and obsolete

Who should read this book?

Leaders (managers, directors, VPs, etc.) should read this book if they want to create teams that execute predictably; the book also covers culture and other subtle elements that make teams work efficiently. Software engineers may not find the book useful unless attempting to create cultural change, which might be difficult since engineers do not usually have such job expectations.

One big lesson

Plans, teams, or organizations without slack are automatically low confidence and high risk; slack is not just about time and schedules; it also encompasses skills, management, and risks.

Favourite Chapters

These five chapters challenged my long-held views and changed my perspective:

  • Chapter 15: The automation paradox blew my mind away
  • Chapter 17: The importance of mindful leadership
  • Chapter 19: Why organizations resist change
  • Chapter 21: Taking ownership
  • Chapter 23: How to earn trust as a new leader

Buy on Amazon.

Chapter Notes

Caveat: I excluded some chapters for brevity.

Chapter 2: Busyness

Effective teams have slack: A team that is stretched taut cannot learn, handle surprises, or innovate. Additionally, in a slack-less organization, tasks must wait until people become available since everyone is so busy and has no spare time. 

The paradox of busyness –  no one sees organizational inefficiency because everyone is too busy! Fix by introducing slack to reduce wait times.

Chapter 5: Managing Eve

This chapter provides tips for managing and motivating strong-willed people. The leader needs to set standards without coming across as overbearing. The solution is ‘control’ slack; just like ‘time’ slack, control slack empowers more folks on the team and allows the manager to scale. Some risk is involved in delegating control.

Chapter 7: The Cost of Pressure

Managers contribute to pressure – most believe pressure is necessary, but other ways exist to achieve impact without overbearing pressure. Performance doesn’t improve when people are under pressure. It causes people to work under fear and results in increased mistakes and decreased accountability.

Initially, applying pressure results in some wins (e.g., removal of ineffective meetings, low ROI efforts, churn on multiple pivots), but there is a point at which it brings no benefits. A prolonged period of pressure results in demotivation, burnout, and attrition; the best managers utilize pressure rarely and never for an extended period.

Chapter 8: Aggressive Schedules

Aggressive schedules indicate something isn’t right; in the author’s experience, hearing the word ‘aggressive’ makes him want to leave. The book shows its age with waterfall-style development expectations; nowadays, software engineers wear multiple hats throughout a single project.

Workers and planners are equally responsible for missed schedules. I find this incredibly insightful since the default is to blame the team/engineers and say, “Look, my plan was perfect, but the team did not deliver; it’s their fault.“. Here are two points for planners:

  • If you knew the workers weren’t up to the task, why did you not plan for it? 
  • Okay, if you found out after the fact, why didn’t you adjust your plan accordingly?

Chapter 9: Overtime

  • Imperceptible slips: The author’s manager’s advice: if you have to be late, be 2 or 3 hours late, don’t be 2 or 3 minutes late. If he is late by two minutes (seemingly small), he’ll probably be negligent in other areas.
  • Sprints and Marathons: Sprinting the last mile of a marathon makes sense; sprinting the entire 26 miles is nonsense. Trying to sprint to the finish line will probably take twice as long as running at a steady pace.
  • The occasional sprint is necessary and can be challenging to pull off, but it can strengthen team bonds and increase energy when done successfully. Here are some tips on how to do this successfully:
    • The project must matter: working round the clock on a trivial project causes disillusion.
    • All in on the boat: The manager must be in the trenches with the team and should have accumulated enough trust.
    • Blue moon: an exceptionally rare event, not the norm, justifying the intervention’s price.

Chapter 12: The Second Law of Bad Management

Shirking managerial responsibilities: I like servant-leadership and believe that managers have to take one for the team regularly; I think a common managerial anti-pattern occurs when leaders constantly play the utility infielder role on their teams.

I have known managers who took on as many as three full jobs reporting to their own management position. Needless to say, the lower-level jobs were badly performed, and there was no management at all”.

Assigning yourself to some unfilled work means unassigning yourself from your default work as a manager, and most times, that seemingly urgent task is not as crucial as your real job of managing. Most managers fall into this trap because putting out fires feels familiar, fulfilling, and necessary: if you are constantly fighting fires, who can blame you? You are doing your best and helping the team. 

Firefighting is ineffective: review all the times you’ve done this, has it led to permanent outcomes? An overworked manager is most likely doing work he doesn’t need to do. 

Management is a hard job with all its associated nuances and constraints. Rather than rushing into battles all the time, first, develop strategies to restore sanity. Make a hypothesis, run the experiment, and evaluate the results. This approach helped me turn around a struggling team.

Chapter 14: Litigation

  • Failures and Growth: If folks are not failing, maybe they are not being stretched to their capabilities. Try to slowly but surely stretch people, so they grow. You challenge folks with tasks at the limits of their abilities; when they fail, you allow them to rest and reflect so they can learn; thereafter, you load them up again and expect them to perform.
  • This chapter also included a valid and nice critique of GE’s stack ranking process.

Chapter 15: Process Obsession

  • Building and nurturing relationships: The stars at Bell labs had quicker response rates to their questions (20 minutes) vs. the lab average (60+ minutes). This was because they had rich connections: they had spread around favors, been responsive, nursed relationships, and seen to other people’s essential needs.
  • The Paradox of Automation: Automation cuts out inefficiencies but makes the remaining work harder, not easier. When you want to automate, you select some mechanical component of the work (that’s what makes it a great candidate for automation). When the new automation is in place, there is less work to be done, but that leftover work is now more complicated and requires considerable support and ramp-up costs.
  • Standards: Standards lay down a rigid way of doing things except for the hard critical part. They are like heavy armour – they protect from damage but slow the wearer down. Always ask the question – what is the core problem this process or standard is trying to solve? Focus on that aspect.
  • Setting Standards: Standard setting should happen at the level of the work (it should not be top-down). Ownership of the standard should be in the hands of those doing the work.
  • Empowerment involves risk: Empowering people means losing some control. If you still retain all control then you’ve not empowered the team. This means taking chances: If the person errs, you accept the consequences. You want the person thinking: “OMG, if I fail at this, my boss will look like a chump”.

Chapter 16: Quality

  • Boost quality by making less: If your budget and time are fixed, making fewer things will result in better quality output. Like Kanban’s recommendation to limit WIP, Tom suggests boosting quality by carefully choosing to make less.
  • Power – the “quality” of quantity: Making less and choosing more carefully is hard to swallow – the “quality” that quantity has is power. If you scale back and focus on fewer great projects, you’re running a scaled-back operation: less powerful, fewer people, less space, and less total visibility. If you choose a winner, you eventually get the clout back, but in the interim, you’ve lost.

Chapter 17: Efficient and/or Effective

  • Efficiency vs. Effectiveness: It is hard to be efficient and effective. An effective but inefficient organization moves steadily in the right direction; the more it optimizes by removing inefficiencies, the faster it moves towards its goals. On the other hand, an efficient but ineffective organization moves in the wrong direction; the more it optimizes, the farther it moves away from its goals. If you have to choose, choose effectiveness first – there is no greater waste than building excellently what should not be built.
  • Strategic thinking vs. drift: The difference between strategic thinking and drift is whether critical choices are made mindfully or mindlessly. Mindless organizations can get tactics right but nearly always miss out on strategy.
  • Instilling effectiveness: Building effectiveness into an organization often conflicts with increasing efficiency. Fisher’s fundamental theorem: “The more highly adapted an organism becomes, the less adaptable it is to any new change”.

Chapter 18: Management by Objectives

  • This chapter made me realize that I have never challenged my acceptance of management by objectives (see OKRs in the book by Andy Grove). I disagree with the thesis of the chapter – we all need a north star to aim for; I also think the author neglects the concept of countervailing metrics, which can remove the bias and gaming of metrics.

Chapter 19: Vision

  • Vision: a company must know its identity; crafting a vision needs a visionary; without a strong vision, a company can react, but it won’t pro-act.
  • Resistance to change stems from a lack of identity: A company without a clear identity or vision will find it difficult to change; the absence of a defining vision implies that the organization defines itself through its stasis. If nothing is declared unchangeable, then the organization will resist all change. For example, compare Amazon principles; someone trying to change one of Amazon’s principles will most likely get kicked outta the door; however, trying to change something outside those 14 principles will be easy to do. 
  • People want to be led: When an organization is drifting, and suddenly someone takes the reins, the relief is palpable – the fact that people want to be led is what makes leadership possible.

Chapter 20: Leadership and “Leadership”

  • Leadership: Leadership conveys a vision, engenders confidence, and encourages striving towards a common goal. Leadership is the ability to enroll other people into your plan. Meaningful acts of leadership usually cause people to accept short-term pain (extra cost or effort, delayed gratification) to increase the long-term benefit.
  • Elements necessary for leadership:
    • Clear articulation of a direction
    • Frank admission of the short-term pain
    • Follow up 
    • Follow up
    • Follow up
  • Leadership does not require power: Sufficient power is never a necessary condition for leadership; there is never enough power; in fact, it is success in the absence of sufficient power that defines leadership. Enrolling someone distinctly outside the scope of your official power base constitutes authentic leadership.

Chapter 21: Dilbert Reconsidered

  • We are all leaders: Leadership is not a factor of your position on the chain – you can lead up the chain and sideways. It is easy (and fair) to blame lousy management on lousy managers. But it is not enough; it is also necessary to blame the people who allow themselves to be managed so badly. At least, partly at fault for every bad management move is some gutless Dilbert who allows it to happen.
  • Ownership: “How I wish my manager could solve x” implies that the person commenting knows what needs to be done but is scared of the hard work involved – he knows it will require a lot of hard work but wants his manager to handle it.
  • I think this chapter is about ownership and taking accountability for multiple aspects.

Chapter 22: Fear and Safety

  • Safety: Safety is the sine qua non of organizational change. It is essential to understand that people define themselves – at least partly – based on their professional activities. Changing what they do gets into the issue of personal identity quite quickly.
  • Change requires safety: Change always implies abandoning something folks have become familiar with and mastered cos it has become obsolete. Changing means you need them to become novices again at something that defines them. People can make these changes only if they feel safe.
  • Fear inhibits change: Fear is a constant factor in learning; it is normal to worry about failing, stumbling and being vulnerable. The fear that impedes change is the fear of mockery; it stalls progress because no one likes to be mocked. Embrace failures as a learning opportunity.

Chapter 23: Trust and Trustworthiness

  • Earning trust: Emerging leaders do not have the time to gain trust by demonstrating trustworthiness. The only path to success is to acquire not-yet-deserved trust. Some leaders have innate qualities that make earning trust easy (such as charisma, flair, etc.). As a new leader, know that most of your reports are willing to take a bet on you.
  • Bet on people: People are loyal when you trust them almost by default. Figuring out who to entrust is the challenge – take chances, sometimes you might be wrong, but it is OK. People also bet on you over your career; pay it forward.

Chapter 24: Timing of Change

  • Timing: Doing the right thing at the wrong time is worse than taking no action. Change agents must carefully time their changes and choose the best times to avoid a David vs. Goliath challenge.
  • Overcoming resistance: Resistance is more likely to be emotional than logical; consider introducing change during periods of growth. Things needed to overcome change resistance:
    • A set of sensible approaches to introducing change
    • A culture that is not change-phobic
    • Proper timing

Chapter 25: What middle management is there for

  • Change Agents: He argues that only middle management can bring change since top management is too disengaged from day-to-day operations and line managers lack the perspective to do so. Middle managers help organizations reinvent, while line managers primarily focus on execution.
  • Management Slack: Reinvention is sometimes impossible because the folks who can make it happen are too busy to have the time. There has to be slack (space, time, and mental capacity) for middle managers to collaborate.

Chapter 26: Where learning happens

  • Safety catalyzes discovery: Learning a new thing triggers a moment of panic when folks realize all that they held dear is not true. Do organizations facilitate an environment for managers to learn from their peers and be vulnerable? 
  • Good vs. Bad Managers: The good but difficult things distinguish good managers from bad managers: people selection and motivation, team jelling, listening, promoting, and choosing correctly when to entrust new responsibility. 
  • Meetings vs. Ceremonies: A meeting requires people to put their heads together to arrive at some conclusion or take some new direction that requires the input and participation of all. A ceremony is a ritual that acknowledges and celebrates something; it is needed in business; e.g., a weekly status update is a ritual, not a meeting. 
  • Change requires meetings (not ceremonies): Significant change requires middle managers to talk and listen; to own and be jointly accountable for a problem. Compare this to providing an update or response to some boss.

Chapter 28: Change Management

  • Supporters vs. Detractors: When change is in progress, it is almost impossible to tell the difference between someone who is diligently trying and failing and someone who is rejecting the change. In times of change, the reward comes first (unlike salaries and wages, which come after work). Most folks withdraw from the bank of trust to drive change; managing knowledge workers requires excellent persuasion skills, accumulated trust, etc.
  • This chapter did not give suggestions on how to solve some of the challenges it raised. What happens with a new guy with no deposits at all in the bank of trust?

Chapter 29: Uncommon Sense

  • Why projects fail: not completing on time, overspending budget, not delivering expected value at completion. Uncertain risk should be calculated in probabilistic terms; some tips:
    • When talking about project timelines, use graphs / probabilistic terms e.g., low, medium, and high confidence
    • When running projects, identify all the possible risks (e.g., attrition, jell, etc.) and use that to build a portfolio to derisk the entire endeavor.
    • Always account for the long tail of the project
  • Cultural pitfalls to watch out for: Most orgs do not allow for uncertainty in estimates, leaders want dates which is an irony given that they also pad such timelines mentally. Try to advocate for a culture of embracing uncertainty (e.g., the low, medium, and high confidence model) and allow folks to take risks. For example, when providing timelines: say the project will ship between Sept 15 (medium confidence) and Sept 29 (high confidence). Without this safety net, engineers might hesitate to take risks or give low-confidence estimates with zero commitment.
  • I particularly like the graph and area under the graph model for estimating project completion times and predicting project completion dates. Even though it is a neat model with its mathematical basis, I might hesitate to deploy it due to the high ramp-up cost of teaching team members.

Chapter 30: The minimal prescription

  • Aggregate and Component Risks:
    • Aggregate: If these risks materialize, the entire venture fails. It can’t be managed directly since it comprises various component risks.
    • Component: The things that can go wrong and cause the aggregate risk to materialize
  • Managing risk: You can’t say you manage risk unless you:
    • Itemize each component risk
    • Have an ongoing process for discovering new risks
    • Quantify the potential impact and likelihood of each risk
    • Designate a transition indicator (early warning indicator) for each risk that will tell you that the risk is beginning to materialize
    • Set down in advance what your plan will be to cope with each risk should it begin to materialize
  • The risk reserve is a buffer: Build a flexibility reserve into all projects! Risk reserve can be time, money, or maybe even skills. This is another form of slack that applies to project management.
  • Run derisking Fire Drills: Risk mitigation and implementation plans have to precede risk materialization! Start sketching out a plan for what to do if risks materialize. E.g., if key talent leaves, what will I do? If conflict emerges, what will I do? Plan, do not react! Think of these as fire drills for projects. 

Quotes from the book

  • When you find yourself applying the same response no matter what the stimulus, you’re no longer acting in an entirely rational way.
  • An organization that can accelerate but not change direction is like a car that can speed up but not steer. In the short run, it makes lots of progress in whatever direction it happened to be going, in the long run, it’s just another road wreck.
  • Time and cost are two mutually dependent variables with an inverse relationship. Minimize one and the other goes up; you can’t minimize both.
  • Successfully driving change requires both the design and rollout of new mechanisms.
  • First law of bad management: if something isn’t working, do more of it
  • Second law of bad management: Put yourself in as your own utility infielder
  • You can’t grow if you can’t change
  • Quantity has a quality of its own
  • Risk avoidance is also flight from opportunity
  • Overworked managers are doing something they should not be doing. If you are overworked, it is your fault.
  • Working at breakneck speed is like driving at breakneck speed – any small mistake leads to a big mishap.
  • Opportunity implies risk; to succeed, you’ve got to take chances.
  • Risk management implies planning for failure 
  • Getting rid of good management to save costs is like losing weight by giving blood.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.