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  • Writer's pictureCE Team

Organizational Slack. How to run a stable organization

He quit! It was a tricky decision that Bill had been considering for months. He was an impact-focused EA, and although he thought his job was fairly high-impact he was pretty sure he was very replaceable. In fact, he was unsure he was even needed at the organization, since many of his tasks could have been done by a less experienced employee. And he was one of the five members of the senior team!

There was about 3.5 members worth of highly difficult work and Bill figured that if the work were reshuffled they would not even notice his absence. When Bill told his team about it they were heartbroken. He was a great employee and they thought his work was not as replaceable as he was thinking. But Bill had done the math and he was set on his decision. The EA organization did not collapse. In fact, for three months everything went totally smoothly. The organization continued its work at a slightly slower rate and with the four remaining senior team members working a bit harder to pull the extra weight. Some tasks were given to more junior employees and were done well; others seemed like juniors’ tasks but required senior staff knowledge to do efficiently, and were thus done poorly or slowly. All being said, the organization seemed fine and Bill was having a strong impact in another organization that needed him so much that work slowed down to a crawl on his every day off. Bill felt confident he had made the right choice. Sadly, on the 4th month after Bill had left things changed. The organization, which had been able to work effectively with four senior members, ran into a problem. One of their employees, Sandy, had to leave suddenly, since their husband had fallen extremely ill and needed almost full-time attention. The work that had been shouldered by 4 people now fell onto the shoulders of three employees, meaning that their organization had no slack; it had already been stretched to its very limits. Sandy loved the organization, but had little time. The other employees worked incredible hours and rapidly tried to hire a replacement, but, of course, that was just extra work that they did not have the capacity to handle. The remaining team did what they could: one of them got sloppy, getting everything done but at crappy quality, another simply could not handle the task load and was always weeks behind on every task, missing important deadlines, including legally mandated ones. The third employee barely slept and worked 12 hours a day, everyday, but after a few weeks burned out dramatically, and was only able to perform at 25% of their normal work ability. The organization groaned and limped on for another 4 months before finally shutting down, 8 months after Bill had left. Even more tragically, 12 months later Bill’s organization also had to grind to a halt, as their overstretched team could not work without him, and Bill needed to take 2 weeks off to fight a strong cold. No one blamed Bill. If anything, it was just bad luck, they said - him leaving and Sandy’s husband getting sick. But really, when Bill left he took much of the organizational slack with him, making the organization fragile to shocks and changes. If not Sandy's husband, the crisis would have occurred 3 months later, when one of their largest donors retired and the organization needed to invest much more senior staff time into fundraising than expected. An organization that has been stretched to its limits cannot handle the expected, predictable, and inevitable shocks that happen. Many EAs make the same mistake as Bill. Being crucially important to an organization does not mean you are crucially important every day, and an organization that needs every staff member performing at their peak (or even median) to function efficiently will break over time and often. Sometimes, the effects will be soon after; other times it might take years for the impact to be felt. However, there will always be variance and times will get tougher than people initially expect. A better model for an organization to have is that at any time any single employee could disappear and your organization should still remain productive and able to stick to its deadlines. Taking into account organizational robustness when hiring and when changing careers is an important factor that could lead to different choices on both the organization’s and the individual’s part.

Many EAs are constantly considering their personal impact in an organization. A factor that is often underemphasized is the benefit of organizational slack. For example, many organizations are set up in such a way that if one employee were unable to work, the entire organization would slow down to a crawl. This obviously makes the organization very sensitive to both large shocks (like an employee falling seriously ill, being injured, or quitting) and small changes (e.g. an employee getting sick for a week, or needing to take some time off without warning due to a family emergency).

No person can be available 100% of the time and unpredictable unavailability happens to both SR and JR staff. If an organization does not have alternative means for getting the work done, it can really harm the organization. The lack of accounting for this happens most often at the higher levels of an organization. For example, many CEOs make the organization dependent on them to the point where if they left, the organization would collapse. This is a suboptimal structure, even if the CEO has no plans to leave: what if they get sick, or what if their family member falls ill? It only takes one of the hundreds of possible (and some fairly frequently occuring) events to put a single member out of commission.

CEOs are not the only ones who do not take organizational slack and robustness into account. I have seen multiple senior staff members feel as though their impact is not important due to the organization having some robustness. No one employee should be so integral to an organization that it would collapse when they leave. A high-impact position could be one where you have three talented staff members and, in theory, the job could be handled by two. This allows you to jump onto new opportunities or have the necessary robustness in the face of hardship. But often, I have seen employees leave strong, robust teams under concern that “the organization would survive without them”.


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