Why slack is so important for innovation

relaxed-employeeThere’s a strange dichotomy in place in many of our organizations.  It seems that most appear openly supportive of innovation and all of the fruits that it brings, yet many are also striving to get as much productivity out of employees as possible.

In such an environment, the kind of slack time that is often required to come up with ideas, and more importantly to develop those ideas, is seldom granted.

Even some of the early pioneers of so called 20% time are scaling back their ambitions in this area.  Instead, many organizations try and prescribe the way we spend our time to the nth degree.  Job descriptions, performance indicators and so on all mandate that our time should be spent performing certain roles and achieving certain outcomes.

The importance of slack

The important role slack plays in innovation is highlighted by a study published by Aberdeen Business School.  It explores how the kind of efficiency projects of the last couple of decades may have made some short term gains, but they’ve done so at the expense of the kind of slack required to be innovative.

When the author interviewed a number of organizations to explore why innovation was struggling to take hold, what do you think was the main response?

“At the end of each interview I asked the interviewees what they would do first to encourage innovation in their organization if they were suddenly omnipotent.  By far the most common answer was time.

But respondents often qualified this – they didn’t want more of the same kind of time, they wanted more unstructured time that did not have specific outputs or procedures attached to it.  The managing director put this very well when she yearned for ‘time to play, time to gaze out of the window, time to let things settle, time to read and react,” he writes.

All of which is something of a drag as we’ve almost been raised to think that doing this kind of thing at work is sacrilegious, that it represents loafing off and will get us into all kinds of strife.

If you want to encourage your employees to be innovative, maybe it’s something for you to consider.


4 thoughts on “Why slack is so important for innovation

  1. Tom DeMarco wrote a great book on this. I keep recommending it to managers who want to cut small amounts of excess resource capacity. A little slack allows teams to cope with "emergencies" and temporary peaks of demand, innovate, improve themselves and their practice, not feel guilty about down time and holidays that refresh them. Flexibility from this little extra capacity allows responsiveness to customers which will allow you to beat the competition.

  2. Point to consider as you say. You need to make the time to have the time to innovate. Many businesses never get to the point of having genuine innovation time…. we need to find ways to integrate and capture innovation ideas and make the time to develop on them if we want products and services that are world class.

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