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

by Tom DeMarco

Slack is an outstanding management book full of wisdom about corporate culture, change, failure, learning, quality, risk management, productivity, and managing people.

“You can’t grow if you can’t change at all.” Slack is “the lubricant of change… Slack represents operational capacity sacrificed in the interests of long-term health… Learning to think of it that way (instead of as waste) is what distinguishes organizations that are ‘in business’ from those that are merely busy.”

PRESSURE. “In my experience, projects in which the schedule is commonly termed aggressive or highly aggressive invariably turn out to be fiascoes… When the schedule is wrong, the work goes on anyway, proceeding in some way other than as planned. The result is that the effort is necessarily hurt. Subtasks are taken in a wrong order, or declared done when they’re only half done, all to keep the fiction of the schedule alive as long as possible.”

The author introduces Lister’s Law: “People under time pressure don’t think faster.”

“The difference between the time it takes you to arrive at ‘all prudent speed’ and time it would take you at ‘breakneck speed’ is your slack. Slack is what helps you arrive quickly but with an unbroken neck.”

QUALITY. “An absence of slack makes quality programs seem like a cruel joke. When there is neither time nor staff to cope with work that runs more slowly than expected, then the cost of lateness is paid out of quality. There is no other degree of freedom.”

“Quality takes time. Even quality in the ‘defects only’ sense takes time. So you might assume that a Quality Program for a development effort would, as its most important task, assure the quality of the schedule… What typically happens is that the schedule is set before the quality people come on board. Anything they do in the interests of quality happens after the date (which makes quality either possible or impossible) has been set.”

TIMING OF CHANGE. “Anxiety of any kind can only complicate the task of change introduction. That’s why the period of sudden decline of corporate fortunes is exactly the worst time to introduce a change. People are uneasy about their jobs, worried about lasting corporate health, perhaps shocked by the vitality of the competition. In retrospect, a far better time to introduce the change would have been in the period of healthy growth.”

“Growth always carries with it a certain necessity for change. You may have to hire more people, expand to larger quarters, diversify or centralize, all to accommodate your own burgeoning success. But growth feels good… It even feels good enough to reduce the amount of change resistance.”

RISK. “Risk management is the explicit quantitative declaration of uncertainty… Risk management is… a discipline of planning for failure. Companies that practice risk management make explicit provision for lots of small (but expensive) failures along the way to overall success. Overall success means taking a lot of money off the table at the end.”

“Risk avoidance is flight from opportunity… Without sensible risk management, organizations are prone to become stubbornly risk-averse.”

FEAR AND SAFETY. “The inherent conflict between effectiveness and efficiency is never so evident as when a risky new endeavor is proposed. The nature of risk is that it takes you away from your base of competence and into a new domain where you are effectively an amateur. That’s why it’s risky. Because modern market economies are in such flux, companies have to be aggressive risk-takers to succeed. But the efficiency imperative has the direct result of making them risk-averse.”

In an unsafe environment people will resist change. “Healthy companies know that they have to allow people to fail without assessing blame. They have to do that or else no one will take on anything that’s not a sure bet. Healthy companies know that, but Culture of Fear companies do not.”

“There’s no such thing as ‘healthy’ competition within a knowledge organization; all internal competition is destructive… Knowledge work is by definition collaborative… Those who suggest that ‘a little healthy competition can’t hurt’ are thinking only of the offense part… But the defense component is always injurious. When peer managers play defense against each other (try to stop each other from scoring), they are engaging in anticooperation.”

TRUST. Leaders acquire trust by giving trust. “The giving of trust is an enormously powerful gesture. The recipient gives back loyalty as an almost autonomous response. Gifted leaders know in their bones how to entrust. It is something they do on a daily basis. They give responsibility well before it’s been completely earned… But not too much in advance. You have to have an unerring sense of how much the person is ready for. Setting people up for failure doesn’t make them loyal to you; you have to set them up for success.”

“Empowerment always implies transfer of control to the person empowered and out of the hands of the manager. That doesn’t mean you give up all control, only some. You can’t empower anyone without taking chances. The power you’ve granted is the power to err. If that person messes up, you take the consequences. Looked at from the opposite perspective… It leaves the empowered person thinking ‘Oh my God, if I fail at this, my boss is going to look like a chump for trusting me.’ There is little else in the work experience with so much capacity to motivate…  Process standardization from on high is disempowerment.”

MIDDLE MANAGEMENT. “Change, particularly a significant one, involves reinvention… The key role of middle management is reinvention…. This is where the dynamic of today’s organizational functioning is examined, taken apart, analyzed, resynthesized, and assembled back into new organizational models that allow us to move forward.”

“The fact that managers have time on their hands (i.e. their operations tasks use up less than eight hours per day) gives them time for reinvention. The extra time is not waste but slack.”

LEARNING. “Change and learning take place in the white space at the middle of the org chart.  Significant organizational learning can’t happen in isolation. It always involves the joint participation of a set of middle managers. This requires that they actually talk to each other and listen to each other, rather than just taking turns talking to and listening to a common boss.”

“The hierarchy lines are paths to authority. They are far too narrowband for all the information that needs to be communicated. Communication in healthy companies takes place in the white space.”

“Training [is] practice by doing a new task much more slowly than an expert would do it… Any so-called training experience that lacks the slow-down characteristic is an exercise in nonlearning.”


DeMarco, Tom. Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency. New York: Broadway Books, 2002. Buy from Amazon.com