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

Oct 28, 2016 | Leadership

Efficiency is seductive.

Many organizations see themselves on a journey, where total efficiency is the holy grail of management. That’s because finding the fastest or least expensive way of doing something sounds great, at least on the surface.

But a culture that incentivizes doing the completely wrong thing in the most optimal way is dysfunctional. And dangerous.

In these environments, you and your software development team end up with perpetually increasing amounts of stress. Maintaining quality while up against unrealistic deadlines nearly guarantees that you’ll miss the ship date and have to ask your team to work overtime.

Innovation? Forget about it. You have no room to experiment when upper management is complaining about the delay on your latest release.

Companies focusing on efficiency end up stifling the creative talent and reduce their overall effectiveness.

However, there’s a ray of hope for your software team.

The answer is slack. (But not that slack).

In Tom Demarco’s excellent book Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency, he presents an alternative to the trap of pursuing total efficiency. Rather than scheduling every single minute of the day, he proposes incorporating ‘slack’ time into your management strategy.

Getting past burnout, busywork, and the myth of total efficiency


Demarco’s advice goes against the kitchen logic that organizations are falling behind if they don’t have every employee working at full capacity every hour of the day. His to-the-point writing style is practical and perfect for managers who are buried in busywork, and wanting to get their team to a place where innovative thinking can occur.

There are four main topics:

  1. Slack
  2. Lost but making good time
  3. Change and growth
  4. Risk and risk management
Each section uses relatable anecdotes and advice to help you recognize the problems the quest for efficiency causes within your team. By the time you finish, you’ll have a solid foundation to create the space needed for better results for you and your team.

Slack may be over a decade old at this point, but Demarco’s advice remains entirely relevant to software teams today.

The Most Important Things You’ll Learn From Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency

  • Innovation requires slack. Are you pushing to develop software that is ground-breaking in your market segment? Step back and give your team time to think, test and experiment with potential innovations. Without slack, your organization can’t be truly effective.
  • Full is not the goal. Constantly busy knowledge workers have no time to consider anything but the task at hand. When these tasks fill up their days, weeks, months, and years, you can’t expect them to create something incredible.
  • Fail, and learn, with confidence. Let your people be confident when failing at something. Many organizations use fail fast, iterative methodologies but they still want to punish workers for failure. The only thing you accomplish with this environment is developing teams of knowledge workers who stay in their boxes due to fear. Encourage failure and the learning and innovation it enables.
  • Nothing can increase someone’s think rate. Expecting a deadline to help software engineers to figure things out faster is counterproductive to your goals.
  • Overtime is dangerous. Outside of rare circumstances, overtime does nothing but encourage a faster burnout rate among knowledge workers. Stop considering productivity based on the hours of work in a day, and start looking at what actually gets accomplished in those hours.

If you only remember one line out of Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork and the Myth of Total Efficiency, make it this one:

“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.”



Ben Thompson

Ben Thompson

Ben Thompson is a co-founder at GitPrime where he leads design and customer experience. He is a Y Combinator alumni, with a background in product design, branding, and UX design. Follow @thebent on Twitter.

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