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Slack and the Agile Manager’s Role: Be the Slack

Reading: Slack and the Agile Manager’s Role: Be the Slack

In his book “Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency”, Tom DeMarco makes the point that you can’t be creative when you are overworked or overburdened. Stress kills innovation as does busyness. Little slack leads to little time to look around leads to little improvement. To be creative, your mind needs to feel free and unallocated, uncluttered even.

Thankfully, we have a solution.

We have more than one, in fact. Let me first tell you about the solution that this article is not about. You can introduce slack into your organization with regular slack time. There are numerous well known examples of companies that do things like Fed-Ex days, time set aside for self-directed work, not allocated to Prioritized Product Backlog Items. Dan Pink once endorsed this approach. In line with this, I like what Dan has to say about what motivates knowledge workers.

But there’s another solution to the lack of slack that we should entertain first. In fact, you are less likely to use FedEx days if you aren’t first doing the following. To introduce this I must first point out something that Scrum says about managers. Scrum doesn’t say a whole lot about managers, but it does say at least this: mangers must stop assigning tasks. Too bad that many managers get their power and sense of self-worth from this activity. Deciding how to get the work done in Scrum is left up to the self-organizing cross-functional team. The people who can best decide how the work should be done are those closest to the work.

Just to be clear, agile managers should not:

  • make assignments
  • hand out work
  • direct people or tell them what to do
  • make the hiring decision solo
  • SW architecture (in my opinion – debatable)
  • do work
  • be an individual contributor
  • be a hero

Well, gosh, then shat should a manager do? Well, I’ll tell ya. Manage more people. Step in when the team needs help (but not too quickly). Manage risks. Also, you are still an agent of the company, handling legal stuff, signing off on expenditures, etc.

But you could also do something else.
Slack time in the office.

Be the Slack.

Move up to a higher level of value to the organization. Be the slack that has been wrung out of the team. Here are some specific suggestions:

  • Keep an eye on the system, looking for improvements.
  • Use A3 Problem Solving (A3 Thinking).
  • Understand the capacity of the team.
  • Protect the slack; protect capacity that is reserved for classes of work that require a short lead time.
  • Ensure cross-training is happening (not by making assignments, but making the team handle it).
  • Understand the dynamics of the organization.
  • Understand how value is created.
  • Protect the team from interference.
  • Make the organization effective; learn to look at it as a system.
  • Support the team.
  • Clear roadblocks.
  • Provide good facilities; fight the facilities police. (Better: Teach facilities how value is created and how better facilities helps create value.)
  • Provide ample computing infrastructure, sufficient build machines and test machines (People are far more expensive than VMs).
  • Use Derby’s 14 essential questions for managers or the book on this topic she is working on.
  • Read Deming and Goldratt.
  • Watch interpersonal interaction; Watch when one team member pulls back, withdraws in a brainstorm (for example)
  • Help the team hone their craft.
  • Encourage the team to learn TDD and BDD by making room for them to learn (time – remove the schedule pressure while they learn).
  • Think through policies, procedures and reward/review systems and improve them. (What messages do they send?)
  • Understand what motivates knowledge workers (see the previous reference to Pink); Let creating that kind of environment be an imperative.

I contend that we should focus on continuous improvement of process, of people’s skills and knowledge, with a strong focus on empowerment and self-organization. Work on open, honest feedback. You’ll have better results if you do all that and just completely scrap the individual annual review. I love quoting Drucker here: “The average person takes 6 months recovering from a performance review.”

Let me bring it back together by saying you can’t do a good job with this other higher value stuff if you are down in the weeds assigning tasks to people. Delegate more. In fact, delegate everything. Free yourself to be the ultimate in valuable slack.

Next The Value of Not Productive Time - a Retrospective on Vacations w/ Derek Huether

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