We need some slack in the system

The lack of slack in our systems is holding us back

Slack in the system

It is curious to me that we have begun to worship efficiency above all else. I have touched on this before when looking at working effectively. But the question is have gone too far? We are damaging our ability to be creative, experiment and innovate. In a word, we are not leaving time for curiosity. We need more slack in the system.

Climbing to the top

As a much younger person, I enjoyed climbing. I have climbed in indoor climbing centres, as well as outdoors in Scotland and Wales. Back then in the late 80s and early 90s all my climbing experiences were roped in. Then I grew older, stopped climbing and did many other things including having a daughter. My daughter embraced climbing of her own volition, she started courses in Brighton at Boulder Brighton and continued after we moved to the North West at the Climbing Hangar and The Boardroom.

These Bouldering places allow you to climb without being roped in and my daughter loves it so much more than roped in climbing. My wife and I have both become converts too. You see, the whole experience is freer, and allows us to be more adventurous and creative in our climbing. I find myself pushed further by finding different ways to climb laterally as well as up. This is  much more playful way to climb and encourages me to experiment, which in turn is good for my Neuroplasticity keeping my brain sharp. Contrast this with my first experiences of climbing when I was all but pulled up the wall as the rope was kept so tight that I could not experiment with different routes and holds.

How can slack in the system be embraced by organisations

The story above illustrates the advantages of embracing slack (particularly the ultimate slack of having no ropes when climbing). But how does this translate to our organisations?

W.L. Gore & Associtates is an organisation that was founded over 60 years ago. Many people know them best for the product Gore-tex, a breathable, yet waterproof fabric membrane (great for those of us who like to climb in wet places like Wales or Scotland). Gore has a way of building slack into the system to allow them to have become recognised as one of the most innovative workplaces attaining 2nd place in Fast Company’s List of 100 best workplaces for innovators.

W.L. Gore and the guitar strings

What Gore does can be seen in the case of how Elixir Guitar Strings became a new business.

Gore has built some slack into their system to allow for curiosity to thrive. This in turn has allowed some fantastic innovations to come about with new products becoming established and even new small companies started under the W.L. Gore umbrella.

Small projects can grow out of the laboratories and tools Gore has at  it’s disposal. The culture in the organisation allows the creative engineers to follow their curiosity. If they start a project that others elect to join then that project continues. Once a project reaches a tipping point of interest (I’ve seen figures quoted of a team of 50) then that project spins out as a small business of it’s own. This way Gore is able to reap the benefits of a large organisation while still being able to act upon the curiosity within and move like a much smaller agile organisation. This can largely help protect Gore from disruption by enabling the system to allow for curiosity to take effect. The system does not even insist on who takes leadership roles on projects, if your project attracts enough followers then they have endowed you as the leader (or Source as my friend Tom Nixon puts it in his book Work With Source).

In this way, Elixir Strings was born in 1997. With over twelve iterations of the string coating formula and the ability to follow their curiosity, the engineers have found a coating for guitar strings that have a longer lasting tone than others and are played on by artists from all over the world, including one of my favourite legends, Richard Thompson.

Slack doesn’t mean slacking off

The term slack in this article is deliberately provocative. But, it doesn’t mean slacking off. It means allowing for a wider view. A view that allows curiosity to take place and teams and organisations to experiment and create in an agile way. Creating the right conditions for this is of paramount importance and managing the system rather than the people within it is a key mindset to adopt.

Get in touch with us and we can co-create new strategies that can help your organisation and teams be ready for whatever comes around the corner. Let’s play!

By: Mart Gordon

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