4. Slack

Why it matters

It’s easy to misinterpret Agile when you confuse speed with the ability to change direction. The latter is Agility.

The one thing you can’t live without in order to create Agility is slack.

How it works

When I was young, I joined the Air force. We were taught aerodynamics. Commercial aircraft are designed to be stable, as a result, they also change direction slowly. Here’s a quick experiment that demonstrates how this works: hold a pen by the top using your fingers like a pendulum and yank it around, it will balance itself back to a vertical position.

Fighter aircraft on the other hand move fast. They are designed for quick change in direction. In order to make this lightning fast, they are often designed with built-in instability. This means that in order to keep them flying straight, you need to be there to balance the aircraft, all the time. Let’s extend our pen analogy above. Now try putting your finger below the tip of the pen and try to balance it in a vertical position. You’ll find that you need to move the pen around constantly to keep it in position.

Most big companies try to stabilize and control. The net effect is that change of direction is very slow. If you over-constrain the system, you will never get there. The mental leap happens when you realize that once you get up to speed, you really can only be in control of your direction, not what is happening around you. You have to embrace uncertainty.

Slack is the investment we make to deal with uncertainty. The more volatile the environment, the more slack we need to give.

Practice - Experiment with adding slack, bit by bit

Start by measuring the level of “unplanned” work you complete together with “planned” work. Use this data to adjust your intake of planned work. It’s super easy in theory. The hard thing is learning to say “no” and letting the data do the talking. It’s easy to overlay the findings using an overly optimistic cognitive bias. “Yes, but this time, it’s going to be different…”

Practice - Let go of things that are not particularly productive

When people are super busy, they overcommit. We stop thinking if something is really valuable, we just assume that it is, and we easily slip into the “get shit done” mode. If you find yourself still working at 10 in the evening several days in a row, that’s where you are at. It’s time to free up space, and let go of things that are not particularly productive.

Practice - Have a “not to do” list

Make a “Not to do” list and live by it. As a leader, you have probably hired smart people and given them room to do what you hired them to do. Your “not to do” list can actually create room for them to grow. Beware that as a leader, you could be giving useless work to others unwittingly, especially when under heavy pressure and stress. The “not to do” list can preempt this. If something is really important, it will make it to the to do list.

Practice - Here are a few "guerilla hacks" people have done over the years:

Stop going to meetings without agenda

Yes, it’s that simple! But also be nice, have a simple template ready that politely declines requests to attend these meetings.

Documentation no one reads

Tasked with writing meeting minutes or software documentation that you suspect no one reads? Make it an empty document, with a line at the end “If you ever read this, ping me on and I’ll give you cake (btw, no one ever got cake…)”

Shift focus from updating yet another prediction to delivering with quality

During times of stress, calls are easily made to “improve prediction accuracy”. Sometimes these can take up a serious portion of your team’s productive time. If requests like this are getting in the way of doing real work, such as investing in craftmanship or quality delivery, this guerilla hack comes in handy. Create a pool of 30 of your team’s latest estimates. When the next request comes to scramble your whole team for an estimate session, pull a random entry from your pool of estimates and share this, and use the session time to build quality instead.

Get over your efficiency mindset

In a survey completed by YouGov with over 100,000 participants, 37% of the respondents believed that their job did not “make a meaningful contribution to the world”. That's close to 40% going to work not feeling that they are doing something worthwhile!

While it can be a pretty big leap to imagine what if all those jobs could be done away with without much consequence,- we still have to ask ourselves why then did these seemingly meaningless or inconsequential jobs get created in the first place? Part of the answer is embedded in our own desire to be wanted and to keep busy. =

What can we do differently?

Traditional approach: “If in doubt as to whether something is worthwhile or not, just do it.”
Agile approach: “If in doubt, don’t do it.”

What Agile teams typically do if in doubt is always to ask, “what is the value?” before taking on a task.

As stated in the Agile Manifesto:

“Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential.”

As a leader, do what you say you do. Try it for yourself! Inject slack into your own calendar.

“If I look at my own calendar, I never go beyond being 60% booked in the current week. This allows me to be present and approachable the remaining 40% of time. I can read books, articles and get smarter. I have mental bandwidth to take on the items that really matter. It does wonders to my work life balance! The really good news: Good habits get picked up by those around you. My team today embraces slack. This means that as a team, you can say “yes” to colleagues that ask for help. This sparks a positive reinforcement loop. Change means willingness to experiment and break the mold. It starts with you!”

- Eik

Injecting slack is a bit counter-intuitive. Your gut feeling can make you think you are not in control. But in reality, you are more effective.

The connection between Slack and Energize is this:

With slack in your everyday worklife, you get the constant satisfaction of getting things done - things of quality. This creates good energy. It energizes you, and this good energy radiates out like ripples.


“Bullshit Jobs: A Theory review – labored rant about the world of work”, The Guardian, 2018

“Stanford professor: Working this many hours a week is basically pointless. Here’s how to get more done—by doing less”, CNBC, 2019

“Why You Should Slack Off to Get Some Work Done”, Wired, 2018