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

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  1,203 ratings  ·  106 reviews
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
Paperback, 256 pages
Published April 9th 2002 by Crown Business (first published January 1st 2001)
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Otis Chandler
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
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
Adam Wiggins
Jul 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: management, business
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 managem
Jan 02, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: on-kindle
(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 pe
Apr 18, 2014 rated it liked it
As a "knowledge worker", I agree with a lot of what DeMarco has to say. I, too, would love to work in a quiet environment with few meetings and no pressure to hurry up and meet arbitrary deadlines. The thing is, I'm not sure if this book is helpful in figuring out how to create this dream work environment. He gives good tips here and there, but I assume most managers who read this won't walk away with a concrete plan on how to improve their company.

Still, it's worth reading if only to realize wh
Simon Eskildsen
Jul 14, 2015 rated it really liked it
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 companie
Stephen Brewer
May 20, 2017 rated it it was ok
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.
Dec 27, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: gen-nf
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 i
May 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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 softwa
Nov 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
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.”
Sopha Nem
Mar 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: for-knowledge
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. ...more
Aug 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Ash Moran
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 ...more
Romans Karpelcevs
Apr 22, 2019 rated it it was ok
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
Aug 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Nov 16, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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 ...more
Aug 27, 2007 rated it liked it
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
Jan 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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
Xavier Shay
Apr 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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
Ralf Kruse
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 client
Mar 27, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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 m ...more
Jul 18, 2018 rated it it was ok
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.
Aug 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: business
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
Nov 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: business, owned, 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
Sep 19, 2020 added it
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.
Dale Alleshouse
Mar 09, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency tempers what is commonly thought of as sound managerial principles with common sense. Tom DeMarco denounces the trend of eliminating middle managers for the sake of efficiency because he believes these managers are a necessary catalyst for adaptability. The underlying thesis is that over-emphasis on efficiency overburdens knowledge workers until they have no capacity for innovation. This condition ultimately leads to inflexi ...more
Adrian Curtin
Aug 22, 2018 rated it liked it
A "Diatribe against efficiency" as described by the author himself. Slack is mostly addressed towards organizations over-focused on removing "unnecessary personnel" or minimizing downtime at the expense of the flexibility to operate and react to the changing marketplace. DeMarco describes how emphasis on productivity and speed can be dangerous absent proper management of risks and expectations, and how the usage of the pressure to be busy and competitive can induce anti-cooperative behavior whic ...more
Aug 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
Torn by this review. The underlying concept is brilliant. 7 or 8 star worthy. It is this: knowledge workers need time in their schedule to do nothing but think. Without that time, they can’t innovate or prepare for the future (or properly handle problems when they arise).

A really great point: You can’t think faster so the only way to get more production from a knowledge worker is to make him/her work longer. This, in turn, effects there ability to think well (tired, stressed from family life pr
Yixing J
Mar 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
one of the best management books i have read, very practical to software engineering, here are some highlights:

* slack is important, there is time slack and control slack
1. time slack makes everyone more responsive, and could actually be faster as an organization
2. control slack means people have more freedom to choose what they want to do
* it's bad to use matrix management, since people have switching costs
* you should try to have slack yourself, do not ever feel bad or unsecure if you don't ha
Ganes Kesari
Jan 02, 2016 rated it liked it
The concept of Slack is powerful and the author makes a strong case for it, debunking the popular corporate notions of total efficiency, stretch targets and aggressive schedules. I found Part-1 of the book to be a good read with some ready takeaways.

Unfortunately, the core message of the book ends right there, and I found the other 3 parts long, rambling and only tangentially related to the concept of slack. Here, the book expands to talk about several other areas of management, though sounding
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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.

News & Interviews

  Mateo Askaripour is a Brooklyn-based writer whose bestselling debut novel, Black Buck, was published in January. It's been a Read with Jenna...
51 likes · 6 comments
“Quality takes time and reduces quantity, so it makes you, in a sense, less efficient. The efficiency-optimized organization recognizes quality as its enemy. That's why many corporate Quality Programs are really Quality Reduction Programs in disguise.” 7 likes
“People under time pressure don’t think faster.”    —Tim Lister Think rate is fixed. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you can’t pick up the pace of thinking.” 3 likes
More quotes…