Slack, in the black

One way to think about how life works is that it’s a series of events in pieces of time. A business’s cash flow is one example. An operating business will succeed if their expenses are less than their incomes. If incomes were stashed away, then a business can weather moments of swelling outflows.

We looked at this with flooding too. Locales flood when the net additions outweigh the net subtractions. Florida’s coastal flood warnings occur during hurricanes, when an “exogenous” event shocks the local system.

Company culture can operate this way too:

“The key to making hard decisions at the top is being ‘in the black’ with your emotional bank account with the culture. As a leader you have to build that bank account and make deposits every day to build trust and credibility with the people who work there, knowing, there are days where you make a giant withdrawal because you’re going to screw up. And you will! It’s just too complicated, but you know that when you have that big withdrawal you’ll still be in the black.” – Doug Conant, The Knowledge Project, August 2021

Conant was head of Campbell’s Soup and at Nabisco during the KKR takeover. In his conversation he’s candid about how to achieve this emotional slack. This isn’t something everyone does all the time, or gets a certification for, but rather it is something that happens in bits in pieces every day.

Conant also frames this idea nicely. Much like a travel budget in time not dollars, Conant compares the cultural balance of an organization to the financial budget. These analogies help our understanding.

Slack is most important in systems with dynamic change. Driving is a physical system where slack is important: how much space is between you and the car ahead of you?Financial slack is having an emergency fund. Levies, barriers, and pumps are slack for flooding. Meditation, peace, or religion are all personal slack for stress.

Marc Andreessen had an interesting take on this idea of events in time. Water cooler conversations, he said, have never really worked well for him. Off-site events though, have been good. It’s a similar amount of interactions: five minutes, five days a week, fifty weeks a year, at the water cooler. That’s twenty-one hours, about one one off-site.

Slack is a way to change the balance of event in time.


Hurricanes are not really exogenous shocks. I mean, we have days where business don’t charge sales tax to encourage people to buy hurricanes supplies. But thinking about systems at different levels: the home, the community, the region, the nation, the world, can change the way we see things.