Tom DeMarco’s book, Slack, is a great read. I’m not going to review the whole thing here, just one chapter. Chapter 27: "Danger In The White Space." DeMarco says that his colleague from Atlantic Systems Guild, Suzanne Robertson, who first coined the phrase, which I think is just great.
The phrase refers to the white space on an organizational chart. That space between the little boxes that represent positions or people. The danger refers to the propensity, in some organizations, to allow, or even encourage, competition between managers or workers. Seems innocent enough if you equate the individual "win" with an organizational win. And DeMarco acknowledges that it’s possible, though unlikely. The more likely problem with such competition is that, at least within a knowledge organization, competition distracts from the ability of the organization to learn. DeMarco notes that by definition, knowledge work is a collaborative enterprise. Stark individualism doesn’t get very good mileage.
He notes that most managers who allow competition to exist, also demand that folks exhibit some degree of professionalism when the situation calls for it. In this case, the professionalism is just a placeholder for cooperation. The problem is, if people are being encouraged, implicitly or explicitly, to compete, what possible incentive would there ever be to help someone else because of some vague notion of "professionalism?" Not much.
DeMarco notes that any level of competition will entail both offense and defense. That’s a problem when managers play defense against each other–essentially trying to keep each other from "scoring." When "scoring" means headway for the organization, internal competition can be a company killer. DeMarco doesn’t note it, but I’d be curious about his view of GE. I don’t know whether they still do it, but under Jack Welch they’d eliminate the bottom 10% of performers each year. If that’s not competition, I don’t know what is. My personal response is that such attrition can be a good thing, but not year after year.
Interestingly, DeMarco includes a whole section on training in this chapter. His reasoning is that training usually takes place suboptimally. I know that’s generally been my experience. Consider the last training you went to. You went in with no idea about how to do the new thing. You learned about it, tried it a couple of times in class, then were sent out into the world as a newly minted "expert." But that’s usually a complete falsehood. You just can’t be expected to be as proficient as the true expert until you’ve been given sufficient lead in time. Nearly every expert has spent time going slow and learning a bit at a time. DeMarco calls this the Hurry Up message and even includes a little graphic of an org chart that has "Hurry Up" printed everywhere in the white space between boxes. It’s a pretty telling graphic, and an environment that many of us actually live in. DeMarco asserts that without sufficient "slack"–that time between learning and becoming an expert–all we’ll have are stressed out suboptimal performers.