IAPM International Association of Project Managers

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Tom DeMarco: Slack: Getting Past Burn-out, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency

Brief summary

Tom DeMarco isn’t a conventional textbook author. Slack is one of his best books to date, so it’s definitely a worthwhile read. DeMarco explains how to increase organisational agility in his book, which coaches readers on how to integrate and thoughtfully use slack in their workday and corporate culture. Slack is a book that should be on every manager’s shelf and an absolute must for all (stressed) project managers.

Content review

"An organisation that can accelerate but not change direction is like a car that can speed up but not steer."

Slack describes how people in an organisation work together, what motivates them and how this knowledge can be used for business success that reflects the interests of both the company and its employees. What’s wrong with an enterprise taking measures to make itself and its employees more efficient? Many things. Especially when it is primarily a knowledge organisation. When efficiency is the prime objective, flexibility and creativity are inevitably sacrificed.

Tom deMarco‘s concept of slack can be applied to many areas of an organisation.

  • Without slack there is no time for analysis, planning or creativity. Employees are a company’s most important resource. If they are so busy that they don’t have a spare moment for anything, they have no scope for personal growth and they’ll eventually leave the company – which can be expensive.
  • Projects with aggressive schedules almost always fail because there is no leeway for flexible responses to problems. If a company also introduces long-term mandatory overtime, the result will be impaired work quality, burnout and high employee fluctuation rates.
  • If an enterprise makes substantial cut-backs in middle management personnel to improve efficiency, it eliminates all its options to adapt to new situations because the middle managers are its change centres.

The book explains the risks of management by objectives and process obsession and it details the importance of risk management. It also describes how organisations can evolve into learning organisations and how brain workers can tap into their true potential. The insights and advice help organisations to stay healthy and viable with slack. Sometimes it’s better to sacrifice efficiency for effectiveness. Examples are provided to illustrate and explain the complex interrelationships within an organisation.

Style description

Slack is...

    • Entertaining and understandable
    • Interesting and captivating
    • Convincingly phrased and full of examples
    • Humorous yet not mundane
    • Fluidly written and a very easy read
    • Entertaining and informative
    • Non-academic and realistic

    It is all these things despite the fact that it’s a book on a specialist management subject.

    Connection with project management

    First of all, if you’re expecting a book exclusively on project management, you’ll be disappointed, because project management is only on the periphery. It primarily deals with work methods and management in knowledge organisations, not project management. If you view it as supplementary content rather than a standard reference work, it will provide a fresh angle on the project management community’s often indoctrinated thinking and encourage critical reflection.

    The book describes...

    • Companies that often exist in the real world
    • Modern-day (project) management mistakes
    • Manager conclusions, some of them quite curious
    • Knowledge and insights that are rarely applied in project organisation theory

    If project managers consider the advice and insights, they’ll avoid a lot of mistakes in their next project.

    Tip

    Reading matter for brain workers! Food for thought for hard-working individuals and a way back to work-life balance for workaholics. Compulsory reading for anyone involved in management who wants to create a satisfied organisation and a creative environment.


    You’ll get the most out of Tom DeMarco’s books if you read them in the following order:

    1. The Deadline
    2. Peopleware
    3. Waltzing with Bears
    4. Slack
    5. Adrenalin Junkies and Template Zombies

    Author’s biography

    Tom DeMarco is an American management consultant, project consultant and best-selling author. He is also one of the best known experts on the subject of project management.
    In recent years he has written many highly acclaimed books on the subject of software project management.

    IAPM Partners