[Slack to the Rescue] Culture of Autonomy

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Innovation and Motivation: Slack to the Rescue

Motivation through slack

Boosting innovation in an organization is one goal, but not the only one. The other one is motivation. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has esteem and self-actualization as the top layers of his famous pyramid, both of which are addressed by slack.

Not Only Innovation, But Also Motivation

When slack enables employees to create innovations, they achieve something valuable. Such an achievement often leads to respect of and by others, which then leads to self-esteem and confidence. Self-esteem and confidence is what Maslow summarized in his esteem layer.

If the esteem layer is achieved, one has the chance to climb to the top of the pyramid, where self-actualiziation is located. Self-actualiziation contains creativity and spontaneity, both of which are required for outstanding innovations.

Another model of motivation is Daniel Pink’s Motivation 3.0. According to Pink, autonomy and mastery are two out of the three pillars of motivation. Certainly, doing what you want to do and getting paid for it is a huge step for an employees autonomy. Since autonomy is the precondition for mastery, slack also supports mastery.

Motivated employees are the best advertisement a company could have. Motivated employees will spread the word of their great company whenever they have the chance. They are walking proof that this job is very attractive. And this attractiveness on the other hand is a huge benefit for an organization’s hunt for employees on the job market.

Tom DeMarco’s 8-Puzzle Metaphor

Tom DeMarco uses the 8-puzzle as a nice metaphor why slack is so important to achieve anything at all within your organization.

“The 15-puzzle … is a sliding puzzle that consists of a frame of numbered square tiles in random order with one tile missing. … The object of the puzzle is to place the tiles in order … by making sliding moves that use the empty space.” — Wikipedia.

DeMarco wrote in his book “Slack”, that a normal 8-puzzle has 11.1 % slack, and that this empty space is what makes the game worth playing. He explained, that instead of fostering this empty space, most organizations see this empty space as a missing tile which should be brought back to the game. So they would add the ninth tile to the game, resulting in 100 % utilization – thus stifling innovation and motivation. Bad idea!

Difference Between Permitted and Encouraged

But it’s not enough to just offer an empty space to the game. One actually has to encourage the use of it.

Google’s 20% time is more of an attitude and culture than a rule…” Scott Berkun said in Thoughts on Google’s 20% time, i.e. slack time is supported by the whole company. He further wrote:

“Google’s culture has a resistance, or even distrust, of hierarchy – they often use voting, peer review, and debate to make decisions or decide which new projects and features to add. … Giving people time is one thing, but it’s the culture of the org they get that time inside that determines how useful that time will be to the company.” — Scott Berkun

Meaning: Slack taken by itself is a good idea, but it’s better when used in an environment of similar practices. And in such an environment, slack becomes serious business.

“There is a big difference between pet projects being permitted and being encouraged. At Google it is actively encouraged for engineers to do a 20% project. This isn’t a matter of doing something in your spare time, but more of actively making time for it. Heck, I don’t have a good 20% project yet and I need one. If I don’t come up with something I’m sure it could negatively impact my review.” — Google 20% Time by Joe Beda, Google employee

20 % a Week vs. 20 %

Gore’s dabble time means half a day per week you’re free to do whatever you want to do. But a Gore employee has to spend her slack time in chunks of half a day, which might not be the kind of freedom an employee needs when she wants to focus on the next big thing.

Also, this slack per week might be a naive fallacy. In this Dilbert comic, a Google employee tells Dilbert and Wally about how great it is at Google with the 20% slack time they are able to use. Asked by Dilbert, how many working hours they’d have at Google, he answered: “About sixty.” Wally’s comment on this: “It sounds better when you don’t do the math.”

But Google handles this differently:

“In practice, few people spend 20 percent of each day or every week tinkering on a pet project. More typical is the engineer who, after working flat out for six months on a critical project, decides to take six weeks off to experiment with a new idea. This freedom, says [Eric] Schmidt [, former CEO at Google], help to ‘avoid the problem of the petty dictator – the tank commander who won’t allow any deviations from the plan.’ The payoff: In one recent period, more than half the company’s new product launches traced their roots back to a 20 percent project.” — Gary Hamel in Future of Management

So, sure, they might have to work 60 hours at Google, but when you work a full week on slack instead on a product, then you’d do that with the same energy. Slack is nothing you’d do in your spare time.

Series Navigation<< [Slack to the Rescue] What You Want to Do[Slack to the Rescue] Harder Than It Sounds >>
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About Bernd Schiffer

Bernd Schiffer is consultant, trainer and coach for Agile Software Development in Melbourne, Australia. Learn more about him on his homepage or contact him on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, XING or LinkedIn.

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