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Cut Innovation Some Slack

Without slack built into the organization, efforts to innovate may fail simply because there is no spare time for thinking or resources for experimenting. Many of the world’s greatest ideas arrived in spare moments, unplanned, and unscheduled. People use slack to provide the chaos needed for creation.

A large company is large because it successfully innovated at some point in its

history. It survives past that point for one of two reasons: Either it has not yet used up the resources acquired through innovation. Or they are still using their

slack resources to provide the raw materials for experimentation and innovation.

A small company is small because it has not yet found and exploited a mass-

market innovation. Its challenge is to use its limited resources to find the innovation needle in a haystack and stay in business while it looks. The business must choose how to use available slack. Should you bet on innovation? Should you use it in operations? Should you return it to shareholders?

Google uses slack by dividing every employee’s time into 70% core tasks, 20% related to core pursuits but determined by the individual, and 10% on far-out ideas. The San Francisco initiative for city-wide free WIFI came from far-out time, as did Google Talk, a free system for instant and voice messaging, the sponsorship of the X-Prize for the first private lunar landing, or any number of Google ideas to be found on their Google labs page.

Genentech also provide their people with 20% slack innovation time. Friday nights are for company beer drinking. People celebrate achievements with parties, commemorative t-shirts, and celebrity bands. It invests half of all revenue back into research. All of this is slack. Slack provides the raw material for collaborative breakthroughs. People have time to think. They have time to solve problems with colleagues. That’s why the company has successfully launched four of their thirteen drugs in less than three years, and has thirty more in the pipeline that have all succeeded in their clinical trials. People have space to consider alternatives and do science right.

Slack is also about trusting smart people. The world is too complex to control, so the only result of attempting control is to slow down innovation. You’ll just get in

the way of people’s attempts to improve. Providing unscheduled time around formal responsibilities is the best way to show you trust people to contribute. It’s

a lot more powerful than simply complaining about a lack of initiative.

You need to leave space in the product plan and the roadmap for stuff that no one thought of when you wrote them. Over-scheduling squeezes out spontaneity.

It stops people reacting creatively to situations, problems, or customers. When

opportunities or possibilities come along, people are just too busy to investigate.

Evidence shows that this kind of breakthrough creativity does not increase when starved of time. Moments of reflection help. Yet most people do not have the time to reflect on what they have done and how they can improve.

A software consultant at the CERN institute in Switzerland used slack time and

computing resources to invent the World Wide Web. An engineer at Texas Instruments used slack time and laboratory space to invent the integrated circuit that led directly to the computing revolution. An accountant working for the Fleer Chewing Gum Company in Philadelphia used slack time and raw materials to invent Bubble Gum. Not one of these inventions came from scheduled time.

Just having slack resources is not enough. If people are sitting around bored, they are less likely to innovate. If slack allows people to avoid tough decisions then it will only lead to complacency. Slack is not there to provide a barrier between the company and reality. It’s there to allow experimentation. To encourage thinking that creates new products, solutions, and industries.

Google time gives people 14 days a month on core tasks, 4 days on core pursuits with tasks determined by the individual, and 2 days a month on far-out ideas. How many days a month do you think far-out ideas deserve? How many days a month could you give your people? How many hours is innovation worth?


Amabile, Teresa, Constance N. Hadley, and Steven J. Kramer. "Creativity Under the Gun." Special Issue on The Innovative Enterprise: Turning Ideas into Profits. Harvard Business Review 80, no. 8 (August 2002): 52-61.

Bourgeois, L. J, III, 1981, “On the Measurement of Organizational Slack”, The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 6, No. 1. (Jan, 1981), pp. 29-39

DeMarco, T, 2002, “Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency”, Broadway Books

Morris, B, 2006, “Genentech: Brainiacs with passion for science and contempt for business-speak”, Fortune Magazine, January 20, 2006

Nohria, N, & Gulati, R, 1996, “Is Slack Good or Bad for Innovation?”The Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 39, No. 5. (Oct., 1996), pp. 1245-1264

Quinn, JB, 1985, Managing innovation: controlled chaos. By: Quinn, James Brian. Harvard Business Review, May/Jun85, Vol. 63 Issue 3, p73-84