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

Gen-Xers got a bad rap for a while in the 90s. There was the whole "slackers" media craze in the 90s (which some of us recognized as not having much to do with true Slack, Praise "Bob"). In retrospect, all that was about was a bunch of relatively smart middle-class youths looking at the jobs the previous generation had in mind for them and thinking: "Nah …." Which is normal intergenerational behavior. But at the time, I recall a lot of Boomer fretting about lazy kids these days, etc. Funny thing was, (and I’m thinking in terms of zeitgeists here, not actual data), it seems like the minute there was something actually interesting to do — like a radical technological and cultural shift happening out in the fabled West, for example — there was a collective packing of bags, moving out, and suddenly all the former slackers were putting in 80+ hour weeks at dot-com jobs. Followed by a boom, then a bust, then a boomlet, and here we all are.

80+ hours can make (some) sense (in certain circumstances, for not too long) when you’re changing the world at a crazy start-up. But it makes much less sense as the crazy start-up starts to get big and stable — and it takes a toll when done over the long haul. Unfortunately, some companies have tried to keep that aspect of their start-up culture a little too long. Which brings us to Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency by Tom DeMarco.

Preston Smalley recommended the book to me, and I found it pretty compelling. It’s aimed primarily at managers of knowledge workers (e.g. designers and software developers), but could also be useful, or at least therapeutic, for folks who’ve been subjected to certain kinds of work cultures. It’s really a couple of ideas wrapped up in one (smallish) package:

  • When dealing with folks like designers and developers, many ways corporations have of maximizing "efficiency" have limited success, can actually backfire and make things slower and more costly, and have pretty serious consequences in terms of burnout, turnover, low quality, lack of innovation. 
  • Following these, it discusses more general management issues that spring from the overall efficiency culture he’s just poked holes in, taking on various management fads and failings like management by fear and overemphasis on process and quality. He also takes some swipes at Dilbert here, which is always nice.
  • Finally he wraps his recommendations for what to do as a manager of knowledge workers primarily around planning for change: ways of creating flexible groups that can adapt to changing circumstances, building slack into schedules to manage risk, and having trust in your team.

There were a bunch of "a-ha" moments for me in the early chapters — DeMarco has a nice way of capturing the absurdities at the heart of some cherished workplace cultural habits simply and neatly. The later chapters are a little more scattered, but then figuring out what to do is always a little harder than figuring out what not to do. 

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