This is the first in a series of three posts illustrating some core insights from Slack by Tom DeMarco. The second post is on the white space in the org chart, and the last post is on facilitating substantial change.
TL;DR: Tom DeMarco’s “Slack” is an awesome book. A few clerks might make your workplace more productive. Sometimes, people choose busywork intentionally to save face. There is such a thing as too much efficiency. Busy-ness can lock your organization in stasis and prevent necessary organizational change.
Question to you if you are a manager of some sorts: Do you have a secretary? An assistant? My guess is: No, you don’t. Nor do I, for that matter. The thought almost seems megalomaniac and elitist, doesn’t it? An assistant? Who do you think you are? The Prime Minister? Tony Stark? Similarly, there are no office clerks who can take over tasks like copying, booking trains or flights, entering data, or getting books from the library. Instead, we do most of this ourselves: Rather highly paid knowledge workers spending their rather highly paid time standing in line for the printer, searching for a hotel for the next conference, formatting documents, doing online research, and all kinds of other busywork. On some days, a substantial part of the day is lost to activities that do not create even the tiniest bit of value for the organization.
This is one of the points that Tom DeMarco makes in Slack (an excellent and short read, go read it if you haven’t). The book is from 2001, but I think a lot of the phenomena he describes are still widespread. One of his first observations is that, instead of thinking about strategy and organizational redesign, knowledge workers, leads, and managers spend substantial amounts of time on tasks of low or lowest complexity that will certainly not move any needles. Why is that?
The answer, according to DeMarco, is efficiency. Organizations all over the world have been obsessed with efficiency for at least the last two decades. Positions like secretary or clerk have been identified as waste, as fat that needs to be trimmed. One by one, they were got rid of. Their duties did not go away, of course, but were taken over by knowledge workers and managers. This is one reason why we find ourselves manually compiling data or formatting some document instead of reinventing.
However, there is a rather remarkable second reason - at least in some organizations. I will call these organizations “hurry-up” organizations, where everybody is obsessed with speedy work and with deadlines, where there is pressure, stress and competitiveness. If this does not apply to your organization, congratulations, good for you! However, note that it is not a black-and-white thing, but that there are many degrees of stress and competitiveness, and that even low levels can be enough to lead to changes in behaviour.
The danger of appearing un-busy
In such organizations, it is in fact safer to do a lot of low-level work. If you do things like compiling data, or formatting documents, or moving Outlook appointments from Monday to Wednesday, everybody can see you are busy. You create tangible output - of a certain kind, at least. Nobody will blame you if you do not find the time to coach people, or to have discussions with your peer managers about the direction of your department or your organization. In a hurried environment, you would not impress anybody with that.
On the contrary: If you look out of the window in silent thought or take a walk while strategizing or planning an initiative, you might be doing important work, but you do not look busy. It looks wrong to your stressed co-workers, and it makes you vulnerable.
Fun anecdote that happened only this week: In order to get new ideas for our recruiting process, I was reading Work Rules! in the office kitchen. One of my favourite colleagues passed me and said jokingly: “Dude, your workday looks like my vacation!” We had a good laugh, and I know he would never blame me for getting ideas from a book during office hours. However, depending on the general atmosphere, this is how it can start. Add a little bit of competitiveness and some insecurity to the scenario, and I might think twice before I “just read a book” during work time ever again.
In an atmosphere of even slight amounts of fear, insecurity, or competitiveness, people will start wondering what the hell you are doing, sitting there all quiet, reading and thinking. You are suspicious, and you realize it. So you rather go back to answering another email, writing some documentation, or adapting your email footer to match the latest corporate guidelines. You get busy to save face. Being busy, or appearing busy, becomes a justification of your existence. Value contribution comes second.
When management abolishes itself
The phenomenon of choosing superficial busy-ness over valuable strategic work is related to DeMarco’s “Second Law of Bad Management” (1):
Second Law of Bad Management: “Put yourself in as your own utility infielder.”
Being European and totally ignorant when it comes to baseball metaphors, I did not quite get the meaning of this at first. What it wants to say is: If there is some support task that is nobody’s responsibility (e.g., finding appropriate giveaways for your conference booth), then put it on yourself and sacrifice some of this dubious management time instead. What would you do in that time, anyway? Talking? Reading? Get real!
Often, this kind of self-overloading of managers has a noble touch to it: “I don’t want to be all boss-like and offload this onto one of my people. They are busy themselves. I’ll just do it, it won’t take that long.” And thus, you add to the fragmentation of your already heavily fragmented time. You add one more responsibility to the pile of responsibilities you already have, causing you to hurry up even more. Not much time for real management left. However, management is important. In more beautiful words by the master himself:
“Good management is the lifeblood of the healthy corporate body. Getting rid of it to save cost is like losing weight by giving blood.” - Tom DeMarco
While we are talking about time fragmentation: You probably know from your own experience that there is a cost associated with task switching. DeMarco suggests a lower bound of 15% of productivity that is lost when you have two or more tasks you have to switch between. Realistically, it is probably more. Therefore, when getting rid of assistants, secretaries, gofers, and clerks, organizations have to ask themselves if the savings they get from those layoffs are not offset by the task switching costs they incur by adding to everybody’s time fragmentation. Of course, nobody measures that effect.
You can also argue from the opposite direction. DeMarco gives an example of a team of five knowledge workers. Everybody communicates with everybody else, so there are ten interaction paths. That is quite a bit of communication overhead.
Moreover, everybody spends around 20% of their time doing support work like entering data, printing, copying, researching, filling in forms, etc. In other words, everybody’s time is fragmented to some degree.
What would happen if this team got an assistant (let’s call him Jim)? The workers could offload certain tasks to Jim, thus increasing the time they can spend on the hard problems they are supposed to solve. Jim might even relieve the knowledge workers so much that four people instead of five would suffice to do the knowledge work.
Now, there are only six interaction paths. Of course, everybody also interacts with Jim, but these interactions are less complex and do not require as much brainpower. The overall communication overhead is less, and people are more focused.
DeMarco claims this is a widespread phenomenon: “I seldom visit a company anymore that could not be made more efficient by the introduction of even a few gofers.”
The cost of hurrying up
Creating a work environment where people do not have to be busy all the time - in other words, a work environment where there is some slack - pays off in many ways. Conversely, an environment of busy-ness can have disastrous consequences for the organization that go beyond the time fragmentation described above. If everybody has the feeling they have to hurry up, one of two things is likely to happen:
- Either, people actually slow down when they are almost running out of work.
- Or, the organization focuses on efficiency only.
You probably agree with me that the first phenomenon is bad. In order to be on the safe side, people stretch out the work they have to appear busy at all times. Instead of hurrying up, they actually slow down.
The second phenomenon might require some explanation: What is wrong with focusing on efficiency? Isn’t efficiency good? Yes and no. Compare effectiveness to the direction you are moving in, and efficiency to the speed you are moving at. Then, if you are heading in the wrong direction, more speed is not a desirable goal. You might even be moving in the right direction at some given point in time. However, the world around you is changing. You will have to adapt and to correct your course. If you move at breakneck speed, a change of course becomes impossible. Your organizational is locked in stasis. You are all about efficiency, and have lost your effectiveness. Your move at great speed, but in the wrong direction.
This is what Slack is about, at its core: Instead of striving for perfect efficiency and 100% utilization, you should allow for some slack in your organization. Slack time is the time in which reinvention and innovation happen. Slack gives you flexibility and responsiveness, and allows your organization to correct its course. Only people who are not 100% busy can think about necessary organizational redesign. And, as a side effect, allowing for some slack will lead to better people retention and less burn-out.
Being busy is not a virtue. If it persists, it is a sign of trouble. I know I am too busy at times. I encourage you to ask yourself if you are too busy, and if yes, if it has to be this way. As a manager at any level, you are a mini-CEO of your part of the organization, so you might actually be able to do something about all the busy-ness.
This blog post took me about 5 hours to write.
- In case you were wondering, the first law of bad management is: “If something isn’t working, do more of it.”