Slack

Author: Tom DeMarco
Publisher: Broadway Books, 2001
ISBN 076790768X

“Do one thing; do it well.” Tom DeMarco proposes in his new book, Slack, that this may no longer be the most winning business strategy. The premise of the book is that it now may be more critical
for a business to do the right thing at the right time than to optimize its business processes toward the goal of achieving perfect efficiency in producing a single product or service.

Ironically, the most ubiquitous technological advances of the past couple decades–laptop PCs, cell phones, pagers, wireless–have helped to both maximize efficiency, and, in the bargain, minimize
slack time. What used to be idle minutes are now filled with wireless email, cellular phone conversations, and in some cases composition of book reviews in airplanes on laptop computers.

The book’s premise is that slack time allows space for mobility, enlarging an organization’s range of motion, such that not only “point A”–where it currently is, but also “point
B”–where it needs to be–are both within its range. In his most compelling real-world example of the potential of slack, DeMarco credits Nokia’s astonishing ability to change from a wood-pulp
company to a high-tech company to the company’s upper management allowing time for middle management to think, innovate, and act as agents for change.

The reader may think, okay, slack is nice to have, but in the context of doing business, so what? Granting that slack is maybe a good thing, what then should be done with the slack? How does it
allow for greater maneuverability? How does an organization identify and seize the opportunities allowed for by greater slack? DeMarco’s premise is that invention is necessary for change, and
that, given slack, people will invent. Conversely, without slack, people will not invent, resulting in organizational stagnation.

DeMarco says that the book is put together such that it can be read cover-to-cover on a flight from New York to Chicago. Well maybe so, if you read quickly, but on the other hand, there are many
ideas in the book that deserve a pause for putting the book on your lap and a minute’s cogitation.

One secret of the book is that it is far from only being about slack. Many intriguing ideas are presented in the book rather on the way to making a point. Perhaps these ideas are presented as main
points previously in his written output, but for a first-tme DeMarco reader these ideas are likely to be affirmative if perhaps not blindingly inspirational. A sampling of these observations
includes:

  • In the current business climate, there is often no time to plan, only to do.
  • As a manager, in order to keep control, you have to give it up.
  • Leadership is everybody’s business.
  • The purpose of middle management is re-invention.
  • Middle management should not be forced to compete against each other, but should be encouraged to work together truly as a team.
  • “Hurry up” really means slow down.
  • Most business get-togethers are so ad hoc as to belie the term “meeting”. They are really working sessions–so let’s fess up and call them that.
  • The purpose of a schedule is planning, not goal setting.
  • Process standards dictate how to do everything except the hard parts.
  • Not only should failure be an option, but uncertainty should be an option as well.
  • Slack makes the difference between “breakneck speed” and “prudent speed”.

The concept of maximum flexibility begs the question, if taken to the limit: if all companies are highly flexible, each with an equal potential for creating any product or service (would you like
RISC chips or potato chips?), is there a danger of companies becoming less and less unique? DeMarco’s answer is that an organization’s culture– “what may never change, what the
organization stands for”–drives its uniqueness. Embracing and propagating this culture is part of what constitutes true leadership.

Not all of the author’s ideas will harmonize with the perspective of data management professionals. At a DAMA International Symposium recently, DeMarco presented a keynote address where he
covered many of the ideas in Slack, including admonishing the audience to “do less documentation”. This was an interesting assertion, to say the least, to make to a group gathered together to
focus on metadata and business rules–documentation, in other words.

Recommended reading? If you are a technology professional, the book may confirm many of your own observations about what goes on in the day-to-day working world. But as far as actionable
information, the folks with the ability to act on the recommendations in this book–to actually implement “slack”—are not technology professionals, but executive management. Is it likely
that executive management will be exposed to DeMarco’s ideas directly, or perhaps indirectly, though trusted subordinates? If they do, will they act on the information, and take steps to invest in
slack? Your guess is as good as mine.

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About William Lewis

Wiliam has more than 20 years’ experience delivering data-driven solutions to business challenges across the financial services, energy, healthcare, manufacturing, software and consulting industries. Bill has gained recognition as a thought leader and leading-edge practitioner in a broad range of data management and other IT disciplines including data modeling, data integration, business intelligence, meta data management, XML and XSLT, requirements structuring, automated software development tools and IT Architecture. Lewis is a Principal Consultant at EWSolutions, a GSA schedule and Chicago-headquartered strategic partner and systems integrator dedicated to providing companies and large government agencies with best-in-class business intelligence solutions using enterprise architecture, managed meta data environment, and data warehousing technologies. Visit http://www.ewsolutions.com/. William can be reached at wlewis@ewsolutions.com.

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