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Book review: When 'Slack' is good

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"Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork and the Myth of Total Efficiency"
By Tom DeMarco
Broadway Books (Bantam Dell Publishing), 226 pages, April

(CNN) -- You start to wonder if you can't divide all the gall in the employee-employer arena today into two parts. One group reads "Creative Destruction" (reviewed April 2, see Related Stories below); or Al Gini's "My Job, My Self" (reviewed November 13, 2000); or Joanne B. Ciulla's "The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work" (reviewed November 27, 2000).

The other group isn't so likely to have those books -- or Tom DeMarco's new "Slack" -- under their arms as they dash onto the executive elevators.

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"The very improvements that the Hurry Up organization has made to go faster and cheaper," writes DeMarco, "have undermined its capacity to make any other kind of change. An organization that can accelerate but not change direction is like a car that can speed up but not steer. In the short run, it makes a lot of progress in whatever direction it happened to be going. In the long run, it's just another road wreck."

The root discussion going on here -- as in so many other books and break rooms and parking lots and gyms -- is about the wisdom or folly of the approach that says you get richer faster if you hire fewer people to produce more in a shorter time. What gets lost in that keyed-up operation, DeMarco says, is management's ability to assess, evaluate, plan -- think.

So a distinction here is that "Slack" looks at the issue more from the corporate-logic standpoint (like "Creative Destruction" authors Richard Foster and Sarah Kaplan) than from the human-toll perspective (Gini and Ciulla).



"Slack," writes DeMarco, "is the way you invest in change." And, of course, change is something disliked by many people at both management and subordinate levels. Slack, in DeMarco's lexicon, is your company's "catalytic ingredient of all change," he writes.

"Slack is the time when you're not 100-percent busy doing the operational business of your firm. Slack is the time when you are zero-percent busy."

If DeMarco's emphasis is on corporate considerations, he hardly ignores the human side. "It's worth going through the exercise," he writes, "to quantify the human capital represented by the people who work for you. ... The loss of even nonstar performers can be a serious burden on effectiveness. Companies within a single industry often have variations of turnover rate as much as three or four times. Those with the higher turnovers are laboring under a huge penalty."

On the issue of getting productive creativity from your people: "What I call bankruptcy of inventiveness is often the result of a failure to set aside the resources necessary to let invention happen. The principle resource needed for invention is slack. When companies can't invent, it's usually because their people are too damn busy."

Tom DeMarco: "When companies can't invent, it's usually because their people are too damn busy."  

DeMarco is a principal with Atlantic Systems Guild, a consulting firm based in London and New York. A fellow with the Cutter Consortium, his clients -- presumably "slack" all over the place -- include IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Lucent and Hewlett-Packard. His book "Peopleware," now in a second edition from Dorset House, is on management and technical development methods. And he's a novelist, author of "The Deadline: A Novel About Project Management" (Dorset House, 1997).

The benefits of what DeMarco calls slack, he writes, are

•   Increased organizational agility

•   Better retention of key personnel

•   An improved ability to invest in the future and

•   A capacity for sensible risk instead of risk avoidance.

One of DeMarco's best moments is his argument for slack as something needed by middle management. "The companies who today find themselves in stasis," he writes, "are that way because they fired the very people who were capable of helping them get through necessary change. They flattened themselves by getting rid of their change centers. ... The key role role of middle management is reinvention."

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.

"It's possible," DeMarco writes, "to make an organization more efficient without making it better. That's what happens when you drive out slack."


Review: 'Duty First' -- biz a distant second
April 16, 2001
Review: Investments among 'Chicks'
April 9, 2001
Review: 'Creative Destruction' -- again
April 2, 2001
Career book review: Consider 'Annie' asked
March 27, 2001
Review: Starting out with 'Who am I?'
March 20, 2001
Review: Not your brother's keeper
March 13, 2001
Review: A race for success
February 14, 2001
Review: Career strength in Gallup's numbers
February 6, 2001
Review: Taking business personally
January 29, 2001
Review: Out of academia
January 22, 2001
Review: Simple St. James says -- 'Simplify Your Work Life'
January 15, 2001
Review: 'The Adversary' -- a career of lies and murders
January 8, 2001
Review: 'Monkey Business -- by two of the monkeys
January 1, 2001
Review: 'Winning the Talent Wars' -- when talent calls the shots
December 25, 2000
Review: 'The Critical 2nd Phase of Your Professional Life' -- getting no younger
December 18, 2000
Review: 'The Guru Guide to Entrepreneurship' -- success from scratch
December 11, 2000
Review: Joanne B. Ciulla's 'The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work'
November 27, 2000
Review: Al Gini's 'My Job, My Self'
November 13, 2000

Atlantic Systems Guild
Broadway Books -- Bantam Dell Publishing Group
Cutter Consortium

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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