Why teams need slack – not the tool

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At BRYTER, we are currently hiring a lot. Therefore, we are of course also discussing how many people of which profession we really need. While management trusts us completely to make the right decisions here, sometimes I encounter that other people are afraid, that we hire people who are not 100% busy.

Especially because we have cross-functional units, the question is tempting if a unit really requires, let’s say a Cloud Infrastructure Engineer, for 100% or if that person rather should serve many units and therefore split their time in chunks of 20 to 25%.

Maximising utilisation: a path to decay

Coming from a perspective of maximising utilisation, I can understand that. We could just create a pipeline of tasks from various units and make them really busy for 100% of their time. However, maximal utilisation never made for great performance in the history of product development.

Working on a never-ending stream of incoming requests will set you or your team into a tunnel-mode in which you can only react rather than proactively improve something. Learning cannot take place without time and problems are ignored, neglected, postponed or overseen.

Over time, this will slow down your team and limit its productivity. Frustration will increase, as the team feels inefficient and finds it harder to make satisfying progress. Furthermore, it will be too busy to take a step back, see the bigger picture and find innovative solutions.

The team will then tweak their solutions, apply quick hacks and other local workarounds that are barely good enough to support the next feature. Until it all falls apart.

Slack: Unplanned time

Giving your team Slack means to have time to reflect on issues and potentially find better solutions. It allows the team to rework a solution when they find a better approach, or to broaden their horizon by exploring alternative solutions and technologies.

It helps to spark entirely new and innovative ideas how to tackle certain topics. Instead of just reacting to impulses from the outside, the team will start to be proactive and take initiative where it sees the most value.

Therefore, asking “How many people do you need to cope with the external requests” is the wrong question. You should also ask, “In which areas could we benefit from some innovation and proactivity?”. Then, help these functions to get more slack.

Example: Cloud Infrastructure Engineer in the Platform and Developer Experience Unit

At BRYTER, we decided that our unit should have a full-time Cloud Infrastructure Engineer. Not necessarily because we have so many requests to keep this person completely busy, but because we would largely benefit from having such a person available permanently.

First, we would not need to depend on and wait for other teams to help us with infrastructure requests. This makes us faster. Second, we expect a considerable benefit from cross-functional pairing: Other engineers would learn to work on the infrastructure better and both roles will develop a more profound understanding for each other and therefore will be able to create better solutions together.

Finally, we see a lot of infrastructure-heavy topics on the horizon, that would benefit from full-time cross-functional learning and exploring of the solution space.

All of these things cannot happen well enough if the availability of one of the functions is highly limited because of other obligations or high workload.

Conclusion

Hiring smart people and making them 100% busy does no good, as those people won’t be able to unfold their full potential. In such a situation, both, the organisation and the individual, loose.

That said, the medal has two sides, as always. Too much slack probably also is not good, as it might lead to procrastination on easier topics and leave difficult topics. Therefore, we need to make sure that people have a huge interest in also tackling the difficult topics and use the slack they have for this purpose. This usually happens when people come up with these ideas on their own or can immediately understand the value.

A tangible vision can help your team to feel connected to an achievement without being limited by tight goals.

How do you ensure slack in your team? Share what works and what does not here in the comments or via LinkedIn or Twitter.

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