Contrary to popular belief, SLACK is not a four-letter word.

“It’s possible,” Tom DeMarco writes, “to make an organization more efficient without making it better. That’s what happens when you drive out slack.”

The myth of efficiency

The relentless pursuit of efficiency has the unintended result of eroding our effectiveness. Daily, our attention is consumed by the immediate and the urgent. Overall the consequence is less time spent thinking as we are consumed by doing. The capacity to think, create and innovate has been driven out of organizations along with the perceived slack. Somewhere along the line “slack” has become a bad thing.

PuzzleEfficient puzzle?In his book Slack, Tom DeMarco illustrates the issue clearly with a simple puzzle. The challenge is to move the numbered tiles into numeric order.

Filling the empty space achieves an impressive 11 per cent ‘efficiency’ gain but renders us incapable of solving the puzzle. We have no room to move. No slack.

The need for reflection

Our brains filter out most of the sensory data we encounter daily. Yet the connections we make between the information that does register don’t always happen automatically. Sometimes we need to think things through to build relevance, connections and insight in response to what we experience.  For knowledge workers, in particular, this is critical. Gaining insight from thinking is hard cognitive work. We don’t respect the time and conditions needed to do it well. Interrupting a programmer who is working with a complex mental map of a system is guaranteed to cost time and effort  to reconstruct the cognitive state he or she needs to work well.

To a degree, this is influenced by cultural norms. In some countries, a worker sitting quietly at his or her desk, deep in thought, is unlikely to be approached. In North America it’s an invitation to be interrupted.

Stop being busy

The inability to carve out time for reflection can be self-inflicted. We sometimes make poor choices about where to spend the currency that is our attention. A powerful ‘litmus-test’ is a simple question: Is this useful or merely interesting? Pausing to ask this question can steer us to more effective use of our limited attention, time and energy.

Decide where to spend your attention

So how do we create slack for ourselves? There are many sources of advice on time management and setting priorities. Stephen Covey’s matrix has stood the test of time as a useful approach. Assessing activities by contrasting importance and urgency gives us a visual guide to what’s consuming our attention. Working to spend more time in the upper right quadrant (the reflection space) provides the slack we need to think about how to address the important and urgent events in our lives more effectively.

Don’t confuse the issue with facts!

talk_to_wallHave you ever tried to win someone over with a clear, fact-based proposal only to have them become even more fixed in their current (in your view, misguided) position?

Earlier I wrote about the resistance to give up ideas being as difficult for us as giving up more tangible things we own.

A useful variation of this notion is examined  in an essay called How Facts Backfire. by Joe Keohane in the Boston Globe.  A key insight: “In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts.”

The essay looks at the findings of political scientist Brendon Nyhan, who studied the puzzling behaviour of people who become more entrenched in their beliefs when confronted by contradictory facts. Unfortunately, this behaviour is as common in the workplace as it is in the political arena that Nyhan examined. Our default position in the “rational” business world is to make fact-based decisions based on clear evidence. When we propose change based on the facts of a given situation we’re often puzzled when met with “irrational” resistance.