Companies can’t invent because their teams are too damn busy

Is your organisation struggling to innovate in a constant state of busyness? In today’s fast paced business environment, the need for “slack”, not just in timelines, but in mindsets, has never been more important.   Therefore, I would like to step back and revisit a book I have read years ago: “Slack” from Tom DeMarco, because sometimes, it makes sense to go back to the roots.

CNN.com review from April 2001 summarises in a way that surprisingly still matches our time

In times of many layoffs, shrinking staffs, vanishing “think time,” middle-managerial heads rolling and mounting pressure to produce more faster, DeMarco’s “Slack” is worth consideration as a rather quick read for large-corporate, small-business and individual workers — there are few limits on who can get some thoughts from this one. 

The author uncovers a truth that resonates even two decades later: efficiency at the cost of creativity is a recipe for stagnation, not success.

The word “agile” is not even mentioned once in this book. It talks though about the myth that the elimination of allegedly non-value providing middle managers (not management), is one of the root causes of companies’ inability to evolve .

The book was first published almost 20 years ago and it was a big influencer for my career. In fact it made me quit my job. It deals with busyness, the culture of fear, process obsession and the contradictory optimisation of maximising delivery speed while minimising costs.

Many organisations still struggle with the same issues today: not being able to reinvent themselves from within.

What I still find interesting, is that Tom DeMarco suggests that organisations need the middle-management managers, because they are the ones to help the organisation to evolve. They are the ones that should have time to learn and develop. How does this match to the flat hierarchy concepts that are propagated in the world of agile? There has been some development since 2001 in the way we see organisations, but  in my opinion, it still matches in several ways. 

Tom DeMarco states that the managers need to learn how to manage. He also states that the upper management should create a safe environment and slack for the middle management . 

Who is the new middle management?

Do not think in hierarchies for a moment. If you consider managers as leaders, in new roles too, it is easier to understand that the people who take time for leading and ownership for change, are important for a company to reinvent itself. By expressing things in a more modern terminology and using the term servant leader (servant leadership is a concept from the 70s, but it is modern again), we can imagine that traditional middle managers could take on roles, such as a Scrum Master (in the general sense of a change agent).  

To better understand my train of thought, I would like to explain the big misconception that the scrum master role is defined in scrum. In general, it is a process enabler who is responsible to run some rituals to perfection. The role is indeed that of a process enabler, but only in the context of a continuous empirical improvement process (which is exactly what Scrum is defined as). I think that those who drive the reinvention of a company, are those who are able to establish a mechanism for continuous improvement and the “Scrum Masters” in the broader definition. For the sake of completeness, the people who work on supporting individuals to improve their skills, should also be added to the list of people who drive change. Therefore, we could talk about the people in the middle of an organisation, not just middle-management or scrum masters. At the very least, these are the people who can continue to drive the reinvention of the organisation from within (based also on external feedback).

Going back to the book’s statement that managers need time in order to learn to manage, I would paraphrase it to make it compatible with agile thinking. People in the middle of the value creation network, need to learn e.g. to be servant leaders in possible new roles. To be able to do that, they still need time, (or as Tom DeMarco calls it), they need slack. “Lower-level” leaders in general, are promoted to new levels, where the leadership tasks are different. Where will they find the time to learn, if it is not provided by the organisation? A promotion from a Team Lead to a scrum master is, in my perception, a promotion that requires knowledge and practice in more difficult management and leadership tasks. This situation is almost completely ignored in the industry, but I guess this is a different story. 

Recognise the people that drive change

It is not just about titles or hierarchies, it is about recognising individuals within the organizations who drive meaningful change.

Yet, for these change managers to thrive, they need support such as safety and permission to slow down, time to reflect and recognition that they are important for the continuous development of an organisation. Otherwise, change cannot be driven from within. In general, we need people who have to learn to think about the future rather than thinking about 100% resource allocation and efficiency.

How can this need for “slack” be balanced?

It starts with a shift in mindset. Instead of seeing slack as a wasted time, we can see it as an investment in teams’s future. By providing managers the support and resources they need to learn and grow -whether it is coaching, workshops, training  or simply permission to slow down-we empower them to drive meaningful change from within. 

Enough said though. The book is quite easy to read and is a good high level reflection on the problems we face in organisations on a daily basis. By prioritising slack – time for reflection, learning innovation – you will empower your teams to do more than just keep the pace, you will enable them to lead the way forward. The main message I would like to remember: Create and embrace gaps in your calendar. Moving away from busyness can lead to so much more. 

Ready to break free from busyness and unlock your team’s potential? Check my “entry workshop” and contact me to learn how we can support your team together.



Photo by mauro mora on Unsplash