[Slack to the Rescue] Harder Than It Sounds

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Innovation and Motivation: Slack to the Rescue

Introducing slack, very carefully

I don’t know how slack was introduced at Gore, 3M or Google. We at it-agile introduced slack very carefully. We had big discussions about the concept. Though it was very attractive, we feared the costs. Being a company of programmers and consultants, each day a programmer couldn’t program and a consultant couldn’t consult was lost money. Sure, slack should pay off in the long term, but doubts remained.

How to Introduce Slack? – it-agile’s 13.5 %

We started the discussions in 2007, inspired by the stories of Google’s legendary 20 % time. At the end of 2008 we started an experiment, which was a mix between sprint and slack called slant. In one week we wanted to program an entire new product. In preparation we asked all our employees for product ideas and participation. We chose one idea out of a dozen and started with 5 employees, nearly a quarter of our company those days. It was an experiment, far away from Google’s 20 %, but closer to where we were before the experiment.

We failed to deliver the product at the end of the slant. We succeeded in having an ongoing discussion about slack. The discussion continued in 2009 and went on in 2010, where we finally created another experiment: in 2011 every employee should have 20 days free to spent on anything she wants to do. Before that experiment, every it-agile employee already had 10 days for further education, and those 10 days were then included in the slack time. Still far away from Google’s 20 %, but closer to where we were before the experiment: 8.9 % slack.

At the end of 2011 we evaluated our slack experiment. One condition in the experiment was, that whenever someone did something during his slack time, he should add it to his personal slack wiki page. During one of our tuning days where everyone gathers to tune our company, we printed all those slack wiki pages, and arranged them in a gallery. This way everyone could get a good overview of every slack time spent. After that, we decided that the experiment was successful and that we wanted to continue with the concept of slack time.

For 2012 we decided to add another 10 days of slack for every employee. That’s it-agile’s 13.5 % – for now.

How to Evaluate Slack?

It’s very easy to calculate the costs or opportunity costs of slack. (Number of employees) x (number of days of one employees slack time) x (number of the average daily rate) = big pile of money. But since this is an investment you’d expect a return.

We could’ve counted the number of innovations we achieved, but we didn’t do that before or after the experiments. In retrospect, it’s pointless to figure out which innovation came from slack time and which did not. Nobody can tell the relation between slack time and sudden inspiration that hits you in the shower or during your run through the park.

However, we measured slack, not in innovations, but in motivations. Not a single voice was heard during our last evaluation at the end of 2011 that claimed less slack.

Hard to Spend All Your Slack Time

One baffling outcome from our evaluation was: not everybody used every minute of their slack. Truth be told, almost nobody used all their slack. One reason was that over the year dates of work at the customer collided with dates of slack time, and in those cases work at the customer often won. Another reason was that not every planned slack time was actually possible, due to external circumstances like cancelled classes or illnesses.

We learned from this: every it-agile employee is now allowed to use up to 50 % of the unused slack from the previous year in the current year. That means, in 2012 an it-agile employee, given enough slack time left from 2011, is able to use up to 40 days of slack time – almost 2 months of continuous slack.

Proud

We’re proud of our slack. We took the risk of doing costly experiments, and, so far, it paid out. We fought long and hard over the details – the concept is so cool and tempting, but the details are so subtle and tricky! -, but we found a solution which works for us. Slack has now a prominent place in our culture, and we’re curious of how the journey continues.

Series Navigation<< [Slack to the Rescue] Culture of Autonomy[Slack to the Rescue] Forever in Down Under >>
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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.

12 Responses to [Slack to the Rescue] Harder Than It Sounds

  1. YvesHanoulle says:

    Cool.
    Yes FedEx Days or weeks are also google/MS/Slack time

    Too bad the time is not used fully.
    If it-agile as a company is serious about this, this should be a KPI as any other.

    Push eachother to use the days at it’s full potential.

    y

    • I see FedEx days not as slack, though they are counted as such at Atlassian. I’ll publish the next blogpost on thursday, which is about slack at atlassian (among other). I’m also planning a blogpost on FedEx days and similar, but that’ll have to wait for now.

      Yes, if it-agile would make us of KPIs at all, we should use “{slack time in days}/{number employees}” per year or similar.

    • Stefan Roock says:

      As one of the it-agile guys I wouldn’t make slack a KPI. For me that sounds like making velocity a KPI. What really counts for us is: employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction and making enough money to stay in business. If we would have KPIs I think we should have these three.

      • Gave it a thought overnight. When I agreed, slack should be a KPI, I had in mind, that I value slack on an individual level. I consider it to be a bad thing if one employee not uses most of her slack time.

        In the three KPIs employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction, and making enough money to stay in business, I do see covered the motivational part of slack in employee satisfaction. If slack is motivational, then employee satisfaction should be better than without slack, and if it’s not, I wouldn’t care about having slack at all.

        What I don’t see in these three KPIs is the innovation part. Making enough money now is no indicator for having enough innovation which will pay of in the future. Same with the customer satisfaction: If our customers are happy now, that’s not enough. Innovation is what can make them be satisfied in the future, too.

        I come to the conclusion: KPI should be innovation and employee satisfaction, rather than slack.

  2. YvesHanoulle says:

    Interesting discussion.

    The problem with innovation as KPI is that you can not measure that. (Ok that probably says more about KPI’S then about innovation)
    Same thing about motivation.
    When I work to hard for a client because that client pushes me, I might still be happy about IT-Agile. I assume that in a company the size of It-Agile (I have no idea of your current size, except that it is smaller then google ;-) ) it’s easy to make sure people understand that we want people to understand slack time etc.

    In a larger corporation, “the medium is the message” is a good way to show peopel how serious you are about something like slack.

    By having a KPI about it, it shows people, we are measuring this, it is important for us that people use that time.

    That said I’m not a big fan of KPI’s, but if a company has them and they are serious about slack, I like that one.

    I’m looking forward to see the post about fedex days.

    As a one man company I have said right form the start I invest between 10 to 20% of my revenue to training. And yes the first years when I was not sure about money etc, it was hard to decline a client follow training. Still today the balancing act is hard.

    And yet I am were I am because I have invested so much in myself the last 13 years.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I do see the point in having slack as a KPI in bigger companies.

      I disagree about the measurement of innovotion and motivation. I think one can do it – and it’s been done before.

      IBM has an impressive expample with it’s EBO program, where they measured new businesses before and after the change. On a smaller scale one could measure the number of new products. With slack, that number should grow.

      One can measure motivation with eNPS or happiness index.

      That said, there might be different circumstances where having innovation and motivation or slack as KPIs. As so often, it depends…

  3. Can you name any outcomes that came out of slack and were collected in the wiki pages? It would be very interesting to find out about the elements that made your employees satisfied.

    • Martin, yes. One can see several categories in which we invest our slack. Those categories are in random order: further education, conferences, community work, sitting in on classes/with other coaches (German: Hospitation), building new products (i.e. trainings, coaching concepts, games, tools, etc.).

  4. A first proxy for measuring ‘innovation’ – whatever that is – might be to measure how much money/revenue/profit you made year over year, year over 2 years etc. with new products or service offerings.

    • I think Apple’s current quarterly result is a nice proof of my example. More than half of the revenue (and even more profit) was made with products (and product segments) that are newer than 5 years.

  5. Pingback: it-agile: State of Play « Stefan Roock

  6. Pingback: Lean Startup-March bei it-agile | Markus Gärtner

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