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

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If your company’s goal is to become fast, responsive, and agile, more efficiency is not the answer--you need more slack.

Why is it that today’s superefficient organizations are ailing? Tom DeMarco, a leading management consultant to both Fortune 500 and up-and-coming companies, reveals a counterintuitive principle that explains why efficiency efforts can slow a company down. That principle is the value of slack, the degree of freedom in a company that allows it to change. Implementing slack could be as simple as adding an assistant to a department and letting high-priced talent spend less time at the photocopier and more time making key decisions, or it could mean designing workloads that allow people room to think, innovate, and reinvent themselves. It means embracing risk, eliminating fear, and knowing when to go slow. Slack allows for change, fosters creativity, promotes quality, and, above all, produces growth.

With an approach that works for new- and old-economy companies alike, this revolutionary handbook debunks commonly held assumptions about real-world management, and gives you and your company a brand-new model for achieving and maintaining true effectiveness.

256 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2001

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About the author

Tom DeMarco

28 books200 followers
Tom DeMarco is the author of fifteen books, including five novels, a collection of short stories and the rest business books. His most recent work is a seemingly jinxed love story, The One-Way Time Traveler.

Traveler Cover

Before that he wrote Dark Harbor House, and before that Slack and Peopleware and The Deadline.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 126 reviews
Profile Image for Otis Chandler.
388 reviews113k followers
April 17, 2014
I think there is one big idea to Slack that makes it worth reading for anyone dealing with leadership or leading at scale. A lot of the rest of the book is fairly obvious or not practical, so not giving it five stars.

The big idea of this book is that creativity can't be rushed, and if you don't build the slack into your schedule to spend some time creatively thinking about your business, you won't be able to innovate. You will only be able to be reactive, not proactive. The "Hurry Up" mindset is so easy to slip into - because there is always more to do than there is time. Providing a theory and data around the fact that having slack in your schedule is not only ok, but it's a good thing, is almost counter-intuitive, and thus really valuable to think about.

The book talks about how some companies slip into a "hurry up" mindset where everyone wants to look busy all the time. The danger of being busy is that you can too easily - especially if you are only being reactive - be busy on working on the wrong stuff.

"Very successful companies have never struck me as particularly busy; in fact, they are, as a group, rather laid-back. Energy is evident in the workplace, but it's not the energy tinged with fear that comes from being slightly behind on everything."

When managing people there is another kind of slack that the book points out: the slack to give up control to someone. Highly functioning people like to own their goals and process and have leeway to accomplish them on their own. As a manager, one of the hardest tasks is to balance giving them that autonomy with occasionally checking in or diving in to make sure things are on track. If you do it too much, you will annoy people or cause them to leave - if you do it too little your team could be wasting time heading in the wrong direction.

Other interesting points:

* In a hurry up organization, there is a natural tendency to try to get people to work harder/more to meet deadlines. While this can work over short stints, it's generally not sustainable. In fact, the book had a bunch of data to show that on average overtime hours aren't more productive.
* They analyzed the "star performers" in a number of companies, and the only thing they had in common they could point to was the strength of their networks. Establishing good connections and doing favors for others let's you get stuff done faster when you need to.
* The book makes a point that setting Quality goals for companies can be dangerous b/c you can so easily focus on the wrong metrics. For instance, reducing the number of bugs is correlated with quality, but it isn't the same thing as making a great product. This seems pretty obvious, so I'm not sure why it needed to be included in the book.
* It's important to set a vision for the organizations culture. The culture are those things that are so important to the organization that they should never change. If a organization lacks those, it will define itself as status quo and resist all change.
* Effective leaders build up trust, often before they've even earned it. The most effective way to do this is to acquire trust by giving trust. The act of giving trust is an enormously powerful gesture. The author told a story about a woman giving him her 2 year old daughter to carry off the plane. The trust she showed impressed him.

A great summary of the book:

“Reinvention takes place in the middle of the organization, so the first requisite is that there has to be a middle. I'll assume your organization still has one. Now pour in some slack, increase safety, and take steps to break down managerial isolation. Viola, the formula for middle-of-the-hierarchy reinvention.”

Profile Image for Bill.
219 reviews76 followers
June 1, 2015
I picked this up because I recognized DeMarco's name from one of my favorite business books of all time, Peopleware. This is a fast read—DeMarco meant it to be read by busy managers on a flight—but it's dense with insights. Some of the more memorable ones:

"People under time pressure don't think faster." (50, quoting Lister, co-author of Peopleware)

Productivity of knowledge workers is almost entirely based on the number of days worked, not hours (64)

"The first law of bad management: If something isn't working, do more of it" (80)

"healthy [leadership] involves people leading their bosses, leading their peers, leading those in peer organizations...without ever being granted the official power to do what they're doing" (141)

"acquire trust by giving trust" (152)

... just a small selection of the many gems in the book.

Not only will you recognize many of the bad management processes from projects you've been on, DeMarco does a great job of contrasting bad management with good management (better called leadership). He repeats several times that good management is much more difficult and counter-intuitive, which explains why it's relatively rare.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to be part of the healthy, successful company, because you (not someone else) have to make it that way.
Profile Image for Adam Wiggins.
250 reviews95 followers
September 6, 2016
This book has two primary hypotheses:

1. The opposite of efficiency is slack. In the name of efficiency, many companies remove slack. This impairs the organization's ability to adapt to change, to manage risk, and a host of other ills.

2. “Middle management” has gotten a bad name, and “flattening the org chart” is now in fashion. The author argues that middle management is a critical part of a company's ability to reinvent itself, because innovative change rarely comes from the top (senior management is too removed from the hands-on work of the company's problem space) or from the bottom (individual contributors must focus on details and rarely have time to look at the big picture). That leaves the middle.

The book is a series of sections which apply the slack idea to different areas: delivering projects on-schedule, team morale, “quality” (a term he rails against in its common usage in business), and leadership and organizational change. The sections mostly stand alone, so you can easily skip over one if it's not applicable to you.

The risk management section is a good example. He argues that project schedules and resources are always allocated based on best-case scenarios. Risk management is the process of thinking of, and cataloging, all the risks and what their impact might be. Then the project lead(s) can create a slack pool, extra resources (usually time and money) available to absorb any risks that might materialize.

Of course, this is common sense: even something as simple as a family road trip requires slack. Somewhere along the way you'll miss a turn, or get stuck with a hotel room that costs more than you budgeted, or blow a tire. Allocating some extra time and money up front to account for such risks is the only thing to do. But, the author argues, many businesses don't apply this simple common sense to their own projects.

Also, don't miss the fun little fairy tale parable at the end.
Profile Image for Simon Eskildsen.
215 reviews953 followers
December 20, 2015
Great book on building organizations that operate with the slack required to innovate and treat its employees well: "The book shows managers how to make their organizations slightly less efficient but enormously more effective.”

Knowledge work requires deep immersion and the organization must make room for it. The industry is recovering from an extreme response to slow, massive corporations that’s carried into the new millennium:

"The principal resource needed for invention is slack. When companies can’t invent, it’s usually because their people are too damn busy.”

If every worker has a massive incoming pile, work moves through the organization slower—this is the smell of blooming bureaucracy. The book questions leadership tenets: is aggressive scheduling really productive? If you tried to build a house in a week and your Sunday delivery didn’t arrive, what will the 50 workers do on the Monday? “[..] if there is no reasonable probability of finishing 20 or 30 percent ahead of schedule—the schedule is a goal, not an estimate”

Speed has downsides: Ships sail at a prudent pace, too fast and you risk damaging the sails and human error increases as fatigue sets in (too slow and you lose momentum). At the right dosage, however, it can be an incredibly productive thing: Calling a weekend sprint with the team over pizza and late-night Chinese can make corporate heroes. However, only when called with impeccable timing and a huge trust reserve—if the Monday deadline is not met, it’s a moral disaster. Working late is similar, and neither are productive in the long run. Projects are measured in days and not workhours for a reason in knowledge work, our daily mental capacity is finite.

Leadership happens everywhere in the organization, and that’s the sign of a thriving, healthy one. Networks flow up, down, left and right through the white space on the org chart. The stars are those with the most responsive networks: "a star, on average, would receive answers in twenty minutes, while the norm for the whole laboratory was more like four hours”. The implementation of change comes from below, while the incentive may come from above. To make the system responsive to change, all parts of the puzzle must feel ownership of their process. Who do you think will be most sympathetic to change, the Volvo workers who build the cars from nothing as a team, or the classic Taylorism (i.e. segmented work) motor factory? Especially with automation challenging the latter production protocol:

"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. That is the paradox of automation: It makes the work harder, not easier.”

Management is hard, and often learned on the job moving from something with more measurable productivity, and often it’s easy to sink back into the work as a relief—but it’s really a retreat. Training of a manager follows the same rule as for a more quantitative discipline: slow practise of a task. A callow manager shouldn’t be expected to get a project done in as little time as the more experienced.

The book concludes with a chapter on risk, with the main points being that the analysis of risk is paramount, and has to be owned—if it’s everybody’s responsibility, it becomes nobody’s:

"The only new initiative you can afford to take on today is one that is full of risk. It’s got to be something that thrusts you into a new market or exploits a brand-new technology, one that transforms your company at the same time that it transforms your clients and the way they work. If you identify any project as risk-free, or even relatively risk-free, cancel it."
Profile Image for Brian.
644 reviews247 followers
March 30, 2014
(3.0) Not a huge number of concrete changes to make, some of the risk management stuff is good, probably things that most organizations really don't do at all

He's a consultant and self-proclaimed expert. Spends a lot of time telling you what not to do, and what you're supposed to do sounds great but perhaps hard to concretely apply.

On efficiency:
* Don't hire "efficiency experts" to root out inefficiency to keep everyone busy 100% of the time on their immediate tasks
* Let people be "idle" some percentage of the time so they can jump on important things that come up
* Hire secretaries and gofers to free up high-level thinkers
* Don't punish people who aren't looking busy 100% of the time...they'll either leave or slow down till they barely keep up with incoming work
* Cost of voluntary turnover is high, even for 'average' team member

On managing:
* Pressure is expensive. A small amount will increase productivity, much more than that and things slow down and people leave. Productivity (measured per hour) pretty much universally decreases after 8-hour workdays
* Root out culture of fear
* Managing by objectives (MBO) doesn't work. wasn't sure if this was well argued...seems that it really depends on how you state your objectives
* Don't put yourself in as your own utility team member. If someone leaves, hire/transfer to fill the gap. When you're doing your team's work, you're not managing
* An overworked manager is not better than one who has free time to meet with team, be curious, innovate. Overworked manager is probably doing things she shouldn't be.

On risk:
* Most orgs confuse "best possible" date with expected date and do no risk management
* Some confuse the "most likely" date with the 50/50 date (because project delivery is going to be right-skewed, typically the peak of pdf is going to represent the 30% mark (project 30% of the time will deliver by then or sooner)
* Consider the cdf/pdf of project completion date and compute the point when probability is 50/50 of being before/after that date (perhaps 20% after/larger than the "most likely" scenario)
* Actively solicit and track risks
- identify them
- identify how you'll recognize when they begin to surface
- identify mitigation ahead of time, and consider investing (even if it delays the "best possible" scenario)
Profile Image for Stephen Brewer.
18 reviews3 followers
May 20, 2017
I agree with most of the conclusions, but not the arguments for them. Better to read Thinking Fast and Slow, Drive, or any quality of biography of a scientist or entrepreneur.

"Slack" is a baffling bad name. I would sum up the ideas as "valuable knowledge work doesn't always have measurable deliverables - act accordingly". Slack suggests less work - which is confrontational and reinforces the fallacy that this not-directly-measurable activity isn't real work.
Profile Image for Dan.
227 reviews134 followers
February 2, 2014
Slack caught my attention mostly due to proximity: it happened to be sitting nearby when I had a few spare minutes. Reading the flap, the main arguments seemed vaguely appealing, especially so soon after several months when I found "slack" hard to come by. I rarely read business books, but I couldn't resist flipping through it during idle periods; I enjoyed the irony in using "slack" time to study a book focusing on its absence.

In any case, while the message in Slack resonated with me (I can't imagine finding a worker in my industry who would disagree with the idea of more unstructured time), I was underwhelmed. Most dismaying, I found the complete lack of references and real-life data to be a significant omission. How could I advocate the positions in this book without case studies and figures to back it up? Additionally, I felt that many of the points DeMarco made are familiar; it seems like most companies would have made their decisions on these matters long ago, with far more data than presented in the book.

That said, I think the arguments in the book made sense and could be instructive to executives at larger, more risk-averse companies. Even without data, several of the points stood out to me; these included the idea of scheduling for risk, the importance of training at low speeds, and stasis being a crippling impediment to a company. One idea I found intriguing was that using the same metrics to measure success each year can hurt innovation. It's easy to see how companies can fail when they don't invest and take risks for the future.

While I wish I could promote this as a great read for anyone in management, I think the significant flaws prevent me from doing so. Some of the other reviewers here have recommended follow-up reading, and I think I'd look there instead.
Profile Image for Allisonperkel.
738 reviews30 followers
May 23, 2010
A solid manifesto against the "lean", highly trimmed, insanely efficient,constantly running full tilt (or more) company.

As someone who comes from the start up world, I resembled Mr DeMarco's don't look back and "plan for success" mantras that lead to late code, burned out developers and non-agile (risk blind) development. I've also seen how agile is misused - so that "Agile" means 100% engaged, damn the torpedoes and go full steam ahead. I've also seen the damage these styles can do to a software organization.

In Slack, Mr DeMarco talks about how having some time to stop and poke your head up can actually lead to a better organization. An organization that can respond to change, that can retain employees, that can manage risk, and that can deliver product. The book is a manifesto - there isn't a lot of footnotes or empirical studies to back him up. Instead, we are getting a glimpse of his experiences at companies over the years.

I can also say that this rings true to me. Even as a start-up junkie, the past few years I've found myself working smarter so that I have more time to stay on top of the changes in my industry. Or that I have the time to spend with my co-workers; where idle talk can transfer a lot of knowledge. In other words, the message of Slack rings true with my perceptions of companies that "get it" and therefore "get it done".

Profile Image for Sorento62.
362 reviews32 followers
November 4, 2019
Focus on effectiveness (going in the right direction) rather than efficiency (going fast). Manage risks. Treat people well.

Having slack enables responsiveness and agility. Being 100% busy creates log jams, stress, and slower processes.

My response:
The trick is to plan for earning enough money without being 100% busy.

A goal may be a best case scenario. A schedule or estimate must incorporate some acknowledgement of risks.

A visionary statement is a strong assertion of “who we are.”
Profile Image for Sopha Nem.
23 reviews
May 1, 2017
A nice read about how important it is for an organization to design slacks into their operation. Slack is a mandatory ingredient for flexibility, organizational learning, and also a weapon to fight stress and fear. There's also a nice section about risk management and mitigation.
Profile Image for Fiona.
512 reviews62 followers
April 29, 2019
Das Buch ist gut geschrieben, sehr locker und ehrlich, ohne große Sach- und Fachlichkeit, aber doch gut recherchiert und aufbereitet.
Letzendlich hat mir aber das "how to" gefehlt. Das Buch zeigt gut auf, wo wir die falschen Wege gehen, jedoch nicht wirklich wie wir davon weg kommen.
Trotzdem eine gute Lektüre und ein bisschen was mitgenommen habe ich auf jeden Fall.
Profile Image for Daniel.
12 reviews2 followers
August 27, 2019
I really enjoyed this book. As someone who has not been actively part of the dotcom era, and has mostly been told about the bad sides of that time, it’s refreshing to read something coming out of that time full of what are still essentially progressive ideas today. Slack as the part of the work where innovation happens vs the always on, always busy culture is something organizations can still learn heaps from today. Definitely recommend reading it.
Profile Image for Ash Moran.
79 reviews30 followers
April 3, 2010
This book goes way beyond its title: Slack is not just about the myth that working at 100% capacity is effective. In fact, I think "Slack" was just an excuse to tie together a raft of ideas. Other key topics are: systems thinking, communication, leadership, fear in organisations, flawed project management accounting, organisational learning, ineffective processes, empowerment, scheduling, trust, change, risk management, and the observation that in the modern world, no organisation can afford to remain in stasis.

There are two forms of slack in the book: individual and organisational (my terms). Individual slack is setting a sustainable workday. Overtime leads to wasted time on unnecessary activities - which is supported with data. Organisational slack is the reserve of time and money that is needed to ensure a project can succeed even if it is hit by obstacles and failures along the way.

The situation without slack is this: An over-optimistic, aggressive schedule, set by managers afraid of showing weakness. An ignorance of uncertainty caused by a can-do attitude. Staff torn between projects as an anomal of cost accounting, with no regard for the nature of their work or their larger contributions to teams. Increasing use of overtime leading to tired, disillusioned staff, who eventually quit and take their knowledge with them. And then, no capacity to train the replacements, or fix the problems that caused it.

The book is more of a critique than a training manual. But it has one key message: it's critical to use slack to learn. Perhaps, then, the only failing of this book is the absence of a bibliography to say where to go next.

So I'll have a go, in case it is helpful. Aside from the scattered references in the book, here are some useful follow-ups:
* The Goal
* Managing the Design Factory
* The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering, 20th Anniversary Edition
* The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education - 2nd Edition

I also have a copy of a book I haven't yet read, but addresses some of the issues in Slack. In case I forget to return here and add it to the list:
* Knowledge for Action: Guide to Overcoming Barriers to Organizational Change
Profile Image for Xavier Shay.
651 reviews83 followers
April 6, 2017
I'm stereotyping, but I feel like America needs to read this book. This book would be a hard one to read without generating any new thought about your team or organisation.

"The principal resource needed for invention is slack. When companies can’t invent, it’s usually because their people are too damn busy."

"Even companies that didn’t fire their change centers have hurt themselves by encouraging their middle managers to stay extremely busy. In order to enable change, companies have to learn that keeping managers busy is a blunder. If you have busy managers working under you, they are an indictment of your vision and your capacity to transform that vision into reality."

"A side effect of this optimally efficient scheme is that the net time for work to pass through the organization must necessarily increase. Think of it from the work’s point of view: The time it takes to move entirely through the network is increased by each pause it has to make in someone’s in-basket. If workers were available when the work arrived at their desks, there would be no wait and the total transit time would be reduced. But availability implies at least some inefficiency, and that’s what our efficiency program has drummed out of the organization."
Profile Image for Romans Karpelcevs.
179 reviews47 followers
April 24, 2019
I was thoroughly bored. I found nothing of interest and nothing I already didn't know or implement in the team.

The book started on a very wrong foot with me:
There are fewer people doing more and doing it faster in less space with less support and with tighter tolerances and higher quality requirements than ever before.

which is obviously a bunch of lies and making the world fit into DeMarco's idea.

The author then decided for me who I am:
The fact that you’ve decided to read this book says that you are busy. You haven’t got time for an extended treatise on organizational forms or a theory of management. At most, you may have the time for a very fast, very pointed airplane read.

which again is a bunch of lies. Well, you can imagine how research- and data-based the remainder of the book is.

The main ideas about busyness are right and have been described in Lean methodology, but here author is making everything so dramatic I can't even say anything good.

Don't pursue 100% efficiency, don't pressure your colleagues. Develop skills for learning and change, not for speed. That's it.
Profile Image for Daniel.
120 reviews
January 15, 2022
Very glad I came across this book, it's very well written (in the style of other books by the author) and with a great deal of common sense not found in similar books, very straight to the point and solving complex daily scenarios (seen/experienced by managers of any kind) in organizations. Worth revisiting and very recommended to everyone working in any kind of organization... with special emphasis on those trying to go 'at breakneck speed' or without much time to think and plan.
Profile Image for Zeh Fernando .
122 reviews1 follower
July 11, 2021
Insightful read on how to manage teams and organizations to increase effectiveness, and how "efficiency" is the wrong way to go about it, by one of my favorite writers about management. Lots of lessons I wish I had learned before...
52 reviews14 followers
August 3, 2019
A management book that starts by separating knowledge-work from factory work and describes the bleedover from traditional factory work that has caused countless wasted hours in office settings. It starts as a critique of common business-isms and management memes, such as matrix-management and employee time fungability, goes onto details of good vs bad techniques for common management techiques, then really focuses on the thesis again, in explaining the differences in mindsets used in management and how it's expresses symptomatically in vocabulary, idioms and incentives.


Knowledge workers aren't fungible. Treating them as if they were will increase busyness but make it harder for them to get useful work done.


Organizations sometimes become obsessed with efficiency and makethemselves so busy that respnsiveness and net effectiveness suffer. When this happens, it is almost always the result of a restructurin or corporate "improvement" effort gone wrong. For this reason, I refer to such na organization as overimproved.


"People under time pressure don't think faster" - Tim Lister


In my experience, projects in which the schedule is commonly termed aggressive or highly aggressive invariably turn out to be fiascoes. "Aggressive schedule," I've come to suspect, is a kind of code phrase - understood implicitly by all involved - for a scheule that is absurd, that has no chance at all of being met.


There is such a thing as a bad schedule. A bad schedule is on ethat sets a date that is subsequently missed. That's it. That's the beginning and the end of how a schedule should be judged. If the date is missed, the schedule was wrong. It doesnt matter why the date was missed. The purpose of the schedue was planning, not goal-setting.


The best predictor of how much work a knowledge worker will accomplish is not the hours that he or she spends, but the days.


Burned-out workers have no heart for anything - not for more overtime, not even for putting in a sensible eight hours a day. They are simply lost to the effort. If they have any capacity left at all, they will use it to cconceal the burnout, or at least try to do so. But they won't be able to do any real work.


[... in reference to the cutting down of secretaries and clerical workers ..]
We also assign ourselves to lower-level work because we're fleeign from challenge.
When a low-level employee off-loads someone who makes six to eight times as much, the organization is a big winner.


The chemistry of Cultore of Fear organiztions seems to call for a fixed minimum amount of blame. In some companies, this minimum may even be written into policy. Consider, for example, G.E.'s policy that all managers must be evaluated every year and the bottom 10 percent be fired.


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

To establish a standardized way of doing any knowledge task, you end up focusing on the mechanics of the task. But the mechanics are a small and typically not very important portion of the whole.
So the process may tell you, for example, the twenty-nine steps you mus tgo through in the inverviewing and hiring of a new engineer, but never give you a bit of guidance on the only thing that really matters: Will this guy cut the mustard?
Each of these standards says, in effect, "I will dictate to you exactly how you must do every aspect of the work ... except the hard part."


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.
Looked at from the opposite perspective, it is this capacity to injure the person above you that makes empowerment work. 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."


Directing an entire organization is hard. Seeming to direct it, on the other hand, is easy. All you have to do is note which way the drift is moving and instruct the organization to go that way.


Vision implies a visionary. There has to be one person who knows in his or her bones what's "us" and what isn't. And it can't be faked. Employees can smell the absence of vision the way a dog can smell fear.
Without vision, flexibility is just an abstraction. It is a measure of what wecould do if we ever got the gumption to try it.
The successful visionary statement will typically have:
1. An element of present truth to the assertion.
2. There is an element of proposed future truth in the statement. It masquerates as "what we are about" but is urging us towards "what we could be all about"
3. Acceptance by those listening is almost assured when the statement walks percetly between what is and what could be.


Leadership is the ability to enroll other people in your agenda. Meaningful acts of leadership usually cause people to accept some short-term pain in order to increase thelong-term benefit.


Lack of power is a great excuse for failure, but sufficient power is never a necessary condition for leadership. There is nevver sufficient power. In fact, it is success in the absence of sufficient power that defines leadership.
Everyone, even the person at the very bottom of the hierarchy, has some potential to lead. And having the potential implies some obligation to use it.


To make an organization change-receptive, you need to route all these various kinds of disrespect from the culture. Replace them with a clearly felt sense that people at all levels are to be honored for the struggle they've been willing to take on.
During the challenge, every failure has to feel like a treasure (or the lesson sit imparts). The person who fails is a hero, the backbone of the change effort.


The rule is that trust be given slightly in advance of demonstrated trustworthiness. 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.


[..on change..]
Convertional wisdom on timing a change tends to give you a shove in exactly the wrong directionl. Conventional wisdom tells you, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." In other words, only consider changing anything when it clearly is "broke."
As long as people tend to define themselves at least partially in terms of the work they do, any change to that work, its procedures and modes, is likely to have the self-definitional importance to them.


Learning never stops till you're dead.


When you learn within the context of a tema, you have a facilitator: another team member who is advances somewhat ahead of you in the subject. This is your coach. You have material: a comfortably doable piece of project work that has been carved off for you by your coach to help you master the skill. And you have co-learners: the other team members who are learning at the same time, or who have just been through the experience themselves. This is a perfect environment for learning what really matters.


Competition happens under authoritarian managers. Slackless organizations tend to be authoritarian. When efficiency is the principal goal, decision making can't be distributed. It has to be in the hands of one person (or a few), with everyone else taking direction without question and acting quickly to carry out orders. This is a fine formula for getting a lot done, but a dismal way to encourage reinvention and learning. The people who could do the reinvention are unempowered, and they're too damn busy anyway to reinvent anything.


Good management is the lifeblood of the healthy corporate body.

Profile Image for Johanna.
50 reviews
November 16, 2011
This was a very quick read and preached a little to this choir. I'd always had a suspicion that the "everything's got to be faster, more efficient" mentality was at odds with the idea of innovating or producing quality strides, and this book simplly confirmed those suspicions. Though DeMarco tries to quantify the trade-off between efficiency and quality, he can only use his empirical experience as a manager and efficiency consultant. He makes some illustrative charts and graphs, but the numbers are only based on his gut intuition. That's worth something, but not the kind of quantitative analysis that you could bring to an employer to try to convince them to change their strategy for managing or producing.

I was particularly struck by this quote:
"[A thing's] real quality is far more a matter of what it does for you, ...than whether it is perfectly free of defects."

As a technical writer, I was trained to believe that perfection in documentation was the highest form of quality, and to that end, I'm sure I produced lots of grammatically flawless documents that no one ever read. It's true that writing needs to be clear and professional, but how much added value do the days of double and triple reviews really pass on to the customer?

A manager once told me that she wished she had time for long-term planning, but her team just had too much work to do. And that was that. She believed that the company wanted her and her team to behave like hamsters on a treadmill that some other department or project manager controlled. What a waste of talent and energy! I suspect that someone in her position would not have time to read this book, let alone convince their peer managers to help revolutionize the pervading corporate culture that all slack in a workplace is anti-American and evil. But what if more managers and CEOs did?

What if more managers and CEOs took to heart the strategies and mindset that DeMarco describes in this book? I suspect that attrition rates would go down and more knowledge workers would be able to stay and grow the company because they wouldn't be chase out by the insanity of unrealistic deadlines and workloads.
Profile Image for kareem.
59 reviews103 followers
August 27, 2007
Having read DeMarco's classic on managing software professionals, Peopleware, quite some time ago, it was with eagerness that I dove into Slack.

DeMarco highlights some of the challenges that most software companies face--aggressive schedules, expected overtime, change management, motivating employees, and risk management, among others. He effectively describes the types of scenarios that lead to problems in each area, but does not provide as many solutions as I would have liked. The premise of the book is that slack in an organization--i.e. time spent doing nothing--is an opportunity for employees to step back, evaluate their processes, products, and roles, and effect change to make them better. This also means that 100% efficiency--i.e. being busy all the time--is extremely counter-productive to the growth and dynamism of a company.

I found myself nodding throughout most of the book, but wished DeMarco would have provided more solutions than he did. While it's not perfect, DeMarco does provide some interesting insights and the book is worth a read.
33 reviews13 followers
December 28, 2017
The book looks at how making businesses more efficient is impacting businesses.

Where as before a secretary might only be utilised 40% of time time now they are put into pools so that this utilisation can be 100%. The impact of this is that where as a secretary might have previously been very responsive to any needs now there is a buffer of work going which the pool of secretaries will work through. The result of this is that the responsiveness to completing the work is reduced. For those people who are not 100% utilised people reduce their speed so that they fully use their time.

This pooling only works if the resources are fungible between different tasks. The challenge is that context switching between tasks can be up to 20% = mechanics of moving to a new task + reworking because of having to stop and move on to other tasks previously + immersion time + frustration + loss of team binding effect.

Direct communication is key, there should not be a restriction in requiring communication to go via their manager.

Focusing on bussiness not busyness. The benefits of slack include:
* Flexibility for the organisation to reform
* People retention
* Capacity to invest

The cost of staff turn over = Time to get up to speed X (Salary + Overhead) X 0.5 X Number of employees X % Staff turn over

You can optimise for time or cost, not both - you can try to balance the two but if you want things done at the minimum time for the minimum cost this just results in stress.

Ways managers apply pressure:
* Aggressive scheduling
* Loading on extra work
* Overtime
* Getting angry at disappointment
* Praising peoples extraordinary efforts
* Being severe on below average performance
* Expecting great things from all workers
* Railing against apparent waste of time
* Setting an example - when a boss labours so much it does not give slack to others
* Creating incentives to encourage desirable behaviour or results

Lister's Law - "People under time pressure don't think faster"

All people can do are:
* Eliminate wasted time
* Defer tasks that are not on the critical path
* Stay late - introducing exhaustion and reducing creativity

Increasing pressure is in three phases.
* Workers respond to increased pressure by trimming any remaining waste by concentrating on the critical path.
* Workers feel tires, pressure from home, and starting to take back some time during the regular day
* Workers are exhausted and are looking to move elsewhere

Aggressive scheduling can cause waste - by having people with particular skills arrive earlier than they can actually start the work. Additionally blame is put on the lowest employees and there is no accountability for the scheduling.

Sprinting can be an effective way to get to the finish line but this should be used sparingly. In contradiction continued overtime has negative consequences:
* Reduced quality
* Personal burnout
* Increased turnover of staff
* Ineffective use of time during the normal working hours

With an extra time, generally, extra work is done however the productivity of each hour is reduced. Regularly accounting uses the contracted hours not worked hours to calculate productivity.

Face saving is not labour saving - such as getting a manager to do clerical tasks (e.g. photocopying, document formatting etc) which could be done by a more junior individual. This would then free the manager up. The challenge is that such a gofer is seen as overhead so is always under pressure to be removed.

Over worked managers are doing things they shouldn't be doing. It is quite common that these people are actually doing multiple roles - the management role as well as the role of someone in the team. The result is poorly completed lower level tasks and no management at all. The reason people do this is that if people have to look busy then doing doing a subordinate job as well provides job security and management is difficult where as the subordinate role is easier and instantly rewarding.

The culture of fear results in
* People stop saying things which needs to be heard
* Goals are set so aggressively they can't be achieved
* Power trumps common sense
* Anyone can be abused for failure
* The people who are fired are generally more competent than the people who aren't
* The people who survive are particularly aggressive

Over-stressed organisations are always understaffed. In fearful cultures people are challenged to deliver more for less and people don't like to hear things they don't like to hear.

When third parties are involved fearful companies will prefer to litigate rather than admit internally that they made a mistake. There is never a good outcome for either company from litigation but from an employee perspective in a company of fear blaming another company means that they save face for the manager inside the company.

Process standardisation removed empowerment and people don't feel ownership for the results.

Quality (both defect free and features) takes time, you can't have both quality and quantity with the same quantity of people. "Quality" programs can often result in quality reduction, e.g. pushing things to the customer.

Directing an organisation is hard. Seeming to direct and organisation is easy. All you have to do is see the drift and tell people to go that way.

Managing by objectives gives you exactly what you task people to do - however in reality it is rarely what you actually want. As such these objectives regularly turn out to be counter productive. This promotes the idea of the company generally being in stasis and not prepared to take on new challenges which might result in huge growth.

Trust is a difficult thing to earn but it is important for managers to give more trust rather than less, generally in advance of it being earned. There is a risk that as a result the person could fail however without giving sufficient trust there would be no way for the person to learn and grow.

If you have to make a change it is much better to make a change while a company is growing, rather than when it is in decline. In the latter people will already be nervous and scared. When a company is growing people are happier to make a change if these see how this ties in with the company vision, which must be authentic.

The key role of middle management is innovation. If these managers don't have sufficient slack they will not be able to spend the time innovating and the company will suffer. To achieve this these managers need to work together. "Healthy competition" is never healthy, when people are competing people are not collaborating and are in-fact working against each other.

When people are learning new things you can not expect people to work at the same rate as they were before. There is a natural slow down as people learn new skills and it would be foolish for companies to not take this into consideration when scheduling.

It is usual for people to only consider the earliest date and promise this to the business or clients. The delivery date will always be within a range of time - of which people should be fully clear on the range of possible dates or costs. There can be ways to reduce the potential risk for delay - the work to do this needs to be estimated at the start this way an informed decision can be made to do the risk reduction work as part of the project or not, this work will have an impact on the earliest delivery date but will reduce the latest delivery date.

Is risk management being effective in the organisation if you pass the 9 question test:
* Is there a published list of risks?
* Is there a mechanism to elicit the discovery of new risks?
* Are any of the risks fatal?
* Is each risk quantified by probability, cost and schedule impact?
* Does each risk have a transition indicator to spot if it materialises?
* Is there a single person responsible for risk management?
* Are there tasks on the work breakdown which might not need to be done if the risk does not materialise?
* Is there both a schedule and a goal?
* Is there significant probability of completing before the estimated date?
Profile Image for Sebastian Gebski.
953 reviews843 followers
August 19, 2014
The idea of "slack" (& the role it plays in efficiency of knowledge workers) wasn't really new for me (I've read about that in "Peopleware" and / or "Drive" before), but I've still found this book refreshing and packed with ideas worth of deeper consideration. If I had to describe this book with one statement, it would be: "words of wisdom".

What did I like that much (except the general theory of slack):
* 2nd law of bad management (it really made me reconsider some things) & busyness of managers
* a chapter about internal competition and how it affects the overall performance
* information flow control (Eve example)
* criticism of MBO
* consideration of middle mgmt's role in introducing changes
Damn, I love pretty much whole book :)

Cons? Can't remember any atm. It's just a great book every manager should read. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Ralf Kruse.
78 reviews9 followers
July 24, 2016
Slack was my first book, which I was reading in direction on how to improve work. I read it in the time, when I was apprentice and challenged by the typical problems we face in our work life. I had a basic felling on something needs to change and this book gave me this first insights on how this might be useful.
I underlined a lot of the insight of the book, which showed me on how mich the book touched and inspired inspired in this days.
Also reading about the job of Tom deMarco on helping clients improve inspired me. It sounded like a great job, but so far away as becoming an astronaut in those days. Since five years I’m working as external coach to help companies to improve and I call this book the start of my journey.
Profile Image for Joseph.
25 reviews1 follower
April 4, 2014
Every page in this book is pure gold. I couldn't put it down; there is sage wisdom in every chapter of this book for technology businesses. I was struck by how simple some of the ideas he presents are, but also at how engrained the complete opposite of those ideas can be in corporate culture. There's a lot of "uncommon" sense in this book. I feel like it deserves a place on every manager's bookshelf and should be re-read frequently. I highly recommend this book if you are a knowledge worker or manage knowledge workers.
Profile Image for Jac.
439 reviews
July 18, 2018
Internally contradictory, glib and confidently asserting things that appear completely wrong - and not all of them are because of how old the book is, either.
Profile Image for Ron.
226 reviews24 followers
April 25, 2023
There are two types of slack discussed in this book - time slack and organizational slack (which he calls control slack).
Profile Image for Daeus.
305 reviews3 followers
August 19, 2018
This book completely blew my mind. Required reading for knowledge workers and management. It completely re-formed my views on efficiency, risk, and managing expectations (of others and of my own). The insights seem so obvious in retrospect but I probably I would have gone many more years into my career before learning to see work in this way. A fast and easy read with an amazing progression, I will definitely be returning to this book regularly.

Some quotes (but really there are whole chapters I would want to share):
-"The principal resource needed for invention is slack. When companies can’t invent, it’s usually because their people are too damn busy."

-“In addition to being flat-out hard to do, building effectiveness into an organization often comes into direct conflict with increasing efficiency. This is an unfortunate side effect of optimization, first noted by the geneticist R. A. Fisher, and now referred to as Fisher’s fundamental theorem: “The more highly adapted an organism becomes, the less adaptable it is to any new change.” Fisher’s example was the giraffe. It is highly adapted to food found up among the tree branches, but so unadaptable to a new situation that it can not even pick up a peanut from the ground at the zoo. The more optimized an organism (organization) is, the more likely that the slack necessary to help it become more effective has been eliminated.”

- “Lack of power is a great excuse for failure, but sufficient power is never a necessary condition of leadership. There is never sufficient power. In fact, it is success in the absence of sufficient power that defines leadership.”

- "There is no such thing as 'healthy' competition within a knowledge organization; all internal competition is destructive... Those who suggest that 'a little healthy competition can't hurt' are thinking only of the offense part."

- "The reasons that people leave or don't leave are as various as the people themselves. However, a common feature of exit interviews is a sense that the departing person felt used. This leads to a disturbing paradox: 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. On the other hand, when people stay on, they are often motivated by the lure of personal growth. The organization's agility, its healthy capacity to take on change, is an important factor in supplying opportunities for such growth to the individual."
Profile Image for Brad.
207 reviews
November 25, 2020
One of the better business books I've read recently. A little dated but not terrible. The fundamentals still apply. Short easy-to-digest chapters with well thought out arguments presented in a realistic way.

Highlights for me:

* Slack and efficiency are opposed. Think of the tile game with no extra spaces. It's efficient but can't change. No slack means no room to change.
* If everyone is 100% busy there is no availability to take on new things that come up. Being available has value too, not just being busy
* Team members need control (decision making) over their own environment (Buddha style). You can use trust from your reserve (Hercules style) to force control but this uses trust from the reservoir
* People under time pressure do not think faster
* Pressure has a limited capacity to benefit and a high capacity to do actual harm
* The term "aggressive schedule" is code for a schedule that is absurd and has no chance of being met
* A missed schedule indicts the planners, not the workers
* Overtime encourages time wasting. No one has to cut unnecessary meetings or be disciplined about interrupts because everyone just works more hours to make up for it
* Overworked managers are doing things that they shouldn't be doing. See Chap 12.
* Defining characteristic of modern litigation: everyone loses
* When rewarding failure with punishment: Ensures people will only take on sure things. Creates a cycle of blame when things go wrong
* Paradox of automation: it makes work harder, not easier. The easy work is automated, leaving only the hard work.
* Process ownership should be in the hands of those doing the work
* The most effective way to gain trust and loyalty with direct reports is to give the same in equal measure
* Being a "Can Do" manager runs counter to risk management. Need a healthy mix of both.
* Instead of proceeding at breakneck speed, proceed at all prudent speed. Less risk overall.
Profile Image for Paulo.
18 reviews14 followers
September 19, 2020
Although the word “slack” has literally become a verb in recent years due to the rise of a well-known communication platform, it has other interesting meanings. One hints at laziness, the other at the idea of leaving space. Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency is about the latter, and I couldn’t recommend it more for anyone attempting to run successful technology teams and organizations.

It may not be as obvious on the surface, but Slack is a book about change. Or rather, how without slack, change becomes difficult or impossible. That's unfortunate, because the ability to change in the face of an ever-shifting landscape is critical.

In Slack, DeMarco effectively writes an ode to middle managers enveloped in the idea that it is with them that "organizational memory" rests and learning occurs. If you never contemplated the crucial difference between efficiency and effectiveness, this book makes it very stark. It argues that the frenzied race for efficiency and resource maximisation has, among other things, starved middle management and, with it, the capacity for organizations to actually be effective.

There’s quite a bit more than that to explore within this short, but important, read. Humorous and entertaining, yet retaining a (very) serious edge, it delivers an important message, and it is sure to challenge your existing worldview in meaningful ways (it certainly did mine). And maybe, just maybe, you will start to consciously look to add slack to your teams like your business depends on it.

Because it does.

(Originally published in The Weekly Hagakure)
28 reviews
January 21, 2022
Another way to look into efficiency culture.
I pick up this book after scarcity. And learning about organizational change. And why there’s resistance to change in the organization.

1. Slack is needed for learning and changing.
2. Combine with the “scarcity “ of time mindset there’s a lot of dropped task and risk
3. Risk mitigation is necessary at the start to mitigate expensive problem down the road. Give some time to do properly to reduce expensive loss time
4. Proper learning environment, at a slower pace for practicing. And safe environment to change to new practice.
5. Middle management slack is needed for the culture change.
6. The busy executives and switching penalty. Knowledge worker cannot think more faster.
7. Multi tasking and multi switching task. Extremely interrupted. The start-up time to remember and rethink all the steps.
8. Benefit of slack: 1. Organization change 2. People retention 3. A capacity to invest
9. Timing for change is during the time of growth.
10. Sustainably change and improvement. To solidify the work practices. Which need time and training and practice.
11. “That means that everybody needs to have some capacity to devote to change. This is time that people dedicate to rethinking how their piece of the whole works, and how it ought to work. Once the change is under way, more time is required to practice new ways and to master new skills. That’s the cost. The benefit is vitality and a firm grip on the future.”
12. Reinvention takes place in the middle of the organization, so the first requisite is that there has to be a middle. I'll assume your organization still has one. Now pour in some slack, increase safety, and take steps to break down managerial isolation. Viola, the formula for middle-of-the-hierarchy reinvention.
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