Preaching Slack

Consultant Tom DeMarco argues that efficiency isn't all it's cracked up to be.

"The more efficient you get, the harder it is to change," writes Tom DeMarco in the introduction to his new book, Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork and the Myth of Total Efficiency (Broadway Books, 2001).

DeMarco, 60, a noted expert on programming and IT projects, and the author of several books, including Why Does Software Cost So Much? (Dorset House, 1995), is a principal at The Atlantic Systems Guild Inc., a loose affiliation of management consultants based in New York and London. He recently spoke with Computerworld about the relationship between efficiency and effectiveness.

You call this book "a diatribe against efficiency." What's wrong with efficiency? Starting [about] 1990, we were stunned by the Japanese phenomenon: They were more efficient, made better products, worked harder. We feared we would get eaten alive unless we made ourselves much more efficient. So we looked around for people who were relatively less busy and laid [them] off. Then we had a population relatively more busy, and we gave those people more work and made them busier still.

But during this time, the Japanese economy fell out of bed, and it hasn't been able to pick itself up. When you become more efficient, you might be too busy, too focused on the present, too tense, too frightened. You see all those people laid off, and that could happen to you if you're not busy enough or if you tried something new in which you are not an expert. So when you're more efficient, you're less agile and less able to change. You're going faster, but you can't steer anymore. In the short term, there's lots of progress in one direction. But in the long term, it's just another wreck.

What should we do? We need to be a little less efficient in order to be more agile.

And that's where slack comes in. What is slack, and how does it differ from fat? How does a breeze differ from a draft? If your whole notion of management is cost reduction, then anytime somebody is not sweating and racing looks like fat to you. But it looks like slack to me when a person has time to think about reinventing the organization, about personal growth, about new and better approaches to the marketplace. Those are the most vital things that happen in a company. Companies need to buy some time for their people when they're not 100% busy and they're free to think.

You also talk about "control slack." What's that, and why is it important in an IT organization? Control slack is a degree of freedom in the "hows" of doing work--choices about approach and tools. These things are also tightly tied to personal growth. The best people don't want to be told exactly what to do and when. They want some choices.

You write about "overimproved" organizations. What does that mean? That's one in which you have cut out all the slack and standardized the way of doing everything, removed all the thoughtful consideration that goes into doing work and replaced it with a fixed pattern of how work ought to proceed as envisioned by a guru class. It might be fine today, but you need to understand that change is not something that happens in a change center. It has to happen throughout the organization.

Explain why extended overtime is a productivity reduction technique. When you work people beyond the workweek, you run into three horrible phenomena. One is burnout, when they just feel used up. The second is mental fatigue, when they start to make a lot more mistakes. Third is that they start to take the time back. They offset overtime with undertime to take care of the needs of their personal life. Finally, they also quit because they feel used. In exit interviews, one of things people mention with astounding frequency is that they were feeling used. As a manager, using people up is not a formula for keeping them around.

How does slack affect retention? Slack means the time and freedom to go about a job in a way that satisfies you and allows you some personal growth. I'm not talking about half the day--it is a reasonable amount of choice in the day and not being driven by the clock all the time. Time for personal growth leads directly to job satisfaction.

Computerworld Online Exclusive

Necessity of risk

You say the only initiative an organization can afford to take on today is one that is full of risk. Explain. If you're under tremendous pressure to show increased performance in lines of code per programmer or function points per month, or to elevate your CMM [capability maturity model] level—if that's the real pressure, you're running from risk and you look for a project you can do with scant regard for whether it's worth anything.

But if somebody comes up with a proposal to do something at no risk, it's probably not worth doing. Projects that are full of risk but full of opportunity are the ones you should focus on.

How does slack relate to risk management? Risk management helps you understand how much slack to put into the organization and where to put it. It's a way of dealing explicitly with the unknowns of work. One of things we do in IT is deny risk and uncertainty. Organizations that have rooted out slack are allowed to miss [a deadline], but they're never allowed to be uncertain. Being over by a year is not [as bad] as saying there's a window of 12 to 18 months [when we might deliver this project].

Risk management is the business of learning to relate uncertainty to past performance and say, "This is how big a window we need." And that suggests how much of a buffer you need to give people, and that's slack.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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