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Can a slack strategy boost innovation?

George Blacklock

Strange and wonderful ideas can emerge when you give your employees the time and assets to explore them, say Yasser Rahrovani, Alain Pinsonneault and Robert D Austin, writing for MIT Sloan Management Review.

For instance, by allowing employees to devote 20 per cent of their time to creativity, Google have been presented with the ideas for Gmail, AdSense and Google Earth.

But, the authors stress, that model won’t work for every company; it pays to plan your slack programme carefully, pre-assess team members and define the most suitable approach for the majority.


Researching the most effective way to design a slack strategy, they interviewed successful thinkers from companies across various industries to find out how they innovate and whether a “slack” culture was helpful.

They then tested the practical model on a sample group of 427 employees, revealing four distinct characters based on criteria of job expertise and how creative they considered themselves to be.

  • High expertise, high innovation (HEHI) people were knowledgeable, inquisitive and always on the lookout for fresh technical ideas and solutions.
  • High expertise, low innovation (HELI) people were comfortable with their current knowledge and reluctant to embrace new technologies.
  • Low expertise, high innovation (LEHI) people were keen to explore change but were usually recent employees.
  • Low expertise, low innovation (LELI) people were less knowledgeable and wary of change.

Most people sat in the middle, with HEHI and LELI people representing just eight per cent each. The authors then looked at whether people’s motivation was either intrinsic (mostly about self-development and fulfilment) or social (aimed at helping others), or both.

Armed with this information, they analysed the way the four groups responded to the three slack resources available – time, technology and support personnel. HEHIs, for example, were very motivated by time and support, but ambivalent towards added technology.


Finally, Rahrovani, Pinsonneault and Austin drew up a list of six key pointers for businesses setting up a slack programme.

1) No single strategy will suit all team members. Don’t expect to get Google-style results if the majority of your workforce don’t have an innovative culture. Gear your programme to the employees you actually have.

2) Any slack strategy needs grass roots managerial support and guidance. The drive to innovate may come from the top, but it’s managers on the frontline who will be operating the slack programme on a day-to-day basis.

3) Consider what motivates different employees. For most it will be the intrinsic opportunity for personal growth and achievement through innovation. For HEHIs it will be the social goal of helping others that will open their eyes to possibilities.

4) Create a safe experimental environment for the least-confident innovators. LELIs and LEHIs need plenty of verbal reassurance.

5) Give employees the slack they require as individuals. Remember that a reluctant innovator can change tack over time.

6) Match your slack programme to the kind of innovation your business wants. The authors explain: “Adding slack can produce two types of innovation: internal innovations, which address work processes and deliver efficiency gains, and outcome innovations, which address process deliverables and directly affect customers.”

There’s much to gain from using slack methodology to encourage positive change and invention, but only if you research your employees’ responses to innovation and adopt the appropriate strategies.

Source Article: If You Cut Employees Some Slack, Will They Innovate?
Author(s): Yasser Rahrovani, Alain Pinsonneault and Robert D Austin