Much Ado About Nothing

I’ve been immersing myself in some practices of Agile marketing. I’ve seen these innovative approaches work well when marketers apply them to the strategic function of content.

One of the concepts that I heard about recently while watching Andrea Fryrear talk about the Kanban approach to Agile is this idea of building slack – downtime, free time – into your process. The possibility of slack arises only when demand (the rate of accepting new work) and throughput (the team’s ability to meet the demand) are kept in balance.

Here’s what Andrea says about the importance of creating slack in the face of our tendency “to optimize our workflow to use up everyone’s available time”:

“This balance [between demand and throughput] produces some slack in the team’s capacity; only those working in the bottleneck areas are constantly busy, and even they must not be given cause to feel overwhelmed. Slack is powerful, because it enables team members to focus on doing their jobs with precision and quality and gives them time to apply themselves to improving the team and its workflow.”

I’ve found success with this concept in teams I’ve managed. Most of the businesses where I was a manager or leader were services-oriented. In those environments, any amount of downtime can be seen as a weakness. It’s the classic industrial revolution mindset of being 100% busy while you are at work. The same mindset is evident all around us. Take the restaurant boss who says, “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.”

You know you’re in one of those situations when you (as a leader) walk by your team members, and they switch from Facebook to an Excel spreadsheet. We’ve all been on the other side as well, switching our computer screen to something acceptable to a boss walking by.

I hated to think that my team might have that small panic attack if I happened to see what they had on their screens. I told them that they were to schedule – and prioritize – downtime. I call it “nothing time.” Nothing time is time for creative thinking, brainstorming, drawing a picture, talking with a friend, whatever they liked. The only rule is that “nothing” means nothing. Working on that foodie-blog side hustle or updating your resume isn’t nothing.

So I’m happy to see this concept integrated into the Agile process.

If we knowledge workers are to become the wisdom workers that our businesses need us to become, we must have time to cultivate that wisdom. To make business-savvy choices about content – Should we decrease quantity? Should we increase quality? Should we do more with less? – we need to spend some time doing nothing. It’s when we’re doing nothing that some of the best somethings happen.