Sunday, November 14, 2010


Much of my software development experience has been with "hurry up" organizations where the highest priority was getting work done quickly. It was no surprise (to me anyway) that these organizations weren't very effective.

So I was happy to find a Tom DeMarco book that presents a better way: Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency - A Handbook for Managers, Entrepreneurs, and CEOs.

Slack is a small book that packs a quite a punch. It's all about efficiency. In part, "...a diatribe against efficiency." It focuses on why "hurry up" and "work harder" are wrong and why efficiency schemes, mandates and initiatives reduce, not promote, effectiveness. The book's position:
It's not that "efficiency doesn't matter at all", it's that "it doesn't matter most of all"

In a way it concerns me that there is a need for this book. Do we really need to be reminded that effective is better than efficient? That knowledge workers have skills, talents and experience that are not exchangeable? That humans are not efficient the same way machines are?

Slack is:
  • Building a capacity to change into the modern enterprise
  • The degree of freedom in a company that allows for change and innovation
  • Room to think, innovate and reinvent

  • Many have written about the need for innovation. Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, captured a key concept:
    The Internet has put abundant information and powerful tools in everyone's hands, innovation is often driven from the bottom up. More than ever, innovation is disruptive and messy. It can't be controlled or predicted. The only way to ensure it can flourish is to create the best possible environment - and then get out of the way. Its a question of learning to live with a mess.

    In a lot of companies it's efficiency - control and predictability - vs. innovation - disruptive, messy and can't be controlled or predicted. Which side are you on?

    In my experience the "hurry up" organization shrinks schedules to provide a necessary "sense of urgency." I've always bristled at that tactic - that pressure improves performance and that maximum performance can occur only in the presence of maximum pressure. A great quote from the book (from Tim Lister) succinctly counters the concept: "People under time pressure don't think faster."

    I find myself in agreement with the author and the book paints an accurate and valuable picture about the state of software development.

    Some food for thought:
    Knowledge work is a card game where all the cards are wild.

    The more efficient you are, the harder it is to change.

    The missed schedule indicts the planners, not the workers.

    Good companies excel in the creative use of slack. And bad ones can only obsess about removing it.

    The more successful a company is in extracting every bit of capacity from its workers, the more it exposes itself to turnover and attendant human capital loss.

    Projects in which the schedule is commonly termed aggressive or highly aggressive invariable turn out to be fiascoes. "Aggressive schedule," a kind of code phrase - understood implicitly by all involved - for a schedule that is absurd, that has no chance at all of being met."

    A good contract requires slack. If a vendor commits to X by a given date, you act to your own peril to accept that commitment unless you can see that the vendor has left itself sufficient slack.

    When the new automation is in place, there is less total work to be done by the human worker, but what work is left is harder.

    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.

    Change can't happen without risk, and risk-taking is only possible in an environment that can be tolerant of at least some failure.

    Learning and reinvention take time. If people are too busy doing the work they will never have the time to learn new ways to approach it.

    The earliest date by which the work could conceivable be done makes an excellent goal but an awful schedule.

    Give your people time to think - innovation and reinvention will follow.

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