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

Sometimes, it makes sense to go back to the roots. Therefore, I would like to direct your attention to a book I have read years ago: “Slack” from Tom DeMarco. 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 word “agile” is not even mentioned once in this book. It does talk though, about the myth of total efficiency and that elimination of the allegedly non-value providing middle managers (not management), is one of the root causes for companies are not being able to evolve. The author elaborates about the illusion of the approach that you get richer faster, if you hire fewer people to produce more in a shorter time. The book was first published almost 20 years ago and it was a big influencer for my career. As a matter of fact it made me quit my job. It addresses busyness, culture of fear, process obsession and the contradicting optimisation of delivery-speed-maximisation, while minimising cost at the same time.

The problems did not change much: Lots of organisations are not 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. I would like to shortly explain.

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 that lies back in the 70ies, but it is modern again), we can imagine that traditional middle-management managers could take over roles, such as the role of a Scrum Master (in the general sense of a change agent).  

To better understand my train of thoughts, I would like to explain the big misunderstanding that the scrum master role is defined in scrum. It is in general, a process enabler that is responsible to run some rituals in perfection. The role is indeed the one of a process enabler, but only in the context of a continuous empirical improvement process (scrum is defined to be exactly this). I think that the ones that drive the reinvention of a company, are being able to establish a mechanism for continuous improvement and the “Scrum Master” in the broader definition. For the sake of completeness, the people that work on supporting individuals to improve their skills, should be added to the list of people that drive change, too. Therefore, we could talk about the people in the middle of an organisation, not only about middle-management or scrum masters. These are at least, the people that can keep on driving the reinvention of the organisation from within (based also on feedback from the outside).

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. The people in the middle of the value creation network, need to learn e.g. to be servant leaders in possible new roles. In order 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. When do they find the time to learn, if not given by the organisation? A promotion to a scrum master from a team lead position is, in my perception, a promotion that requires knowledge and practice on 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

The managers or the new roles need support such as safety and permission to slow down, time for reflection and the recognition that they are important for the continuous development of an organisation. Otherwise, change cannot be driven from within. In general, we need people that have to learn to think about the future and not thinking of 100% resource allocation and efficiency.

Enough said though. The book is quite easy to read and is a good high level reflexion about the problems we face on a daily basis in organisations. The main message that I would like to remember : Create and embrace gaps in your calendar. Moving away from busyness will lead to do more business. 

Photo by mauro mora on Unsplash