Any number of words in the English language have been redefined over the years and they've come to mean entirely different things. Some have come to be complimentary ("sick" or "ill"), some are disparaging (I dare not give a "ditzy" example), and others are now hateful and politically incorrect if misapplied, used in jest in the wrong company, or used by the "wrong" people.
It's a very slippery slope these days and a page right out of Alice in Wonderland, where Humpty Dumpty tells Alice: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."
Nonetheless, I propose that we start rehabilitating the word "slacker" and cut the poor noun some slack. I'm not really sure when calling someone a "slacker" became a term of derision. In the beginning, it was far more hilarious than hateful. Richard Linklater's 1990 film Slackers brought the definitive persona to the big screen. Kevin Smith's Clerks and Mallrats in the mid-1990s added to the oeuvre. These were all basically amusing portraits of a bunch of young comedic doofuses living an alternative (and modestly attractive) lifestyle.
Their attitudes, approaches, and antics weren't necessarily admirable, but they didn't mean any evil by it. No harm, no foul. However, over some relatively short period of time, "slacker" morphed into a moniker that meant lazy, drug-addled, pierced, tattooed; slackers came to represent a lifestyle that threatened to corrupt our kids with their work-averse ethic, weed, and wild ideas. They could live in Seattle or Portland, but not on our streets or in our suburbs.
But as we hopefully near the end of our national nightmare, one thing that the pandemic taught us for sure is: In our businesses, having a little slack is a pretty good thing. That doesn't mean bailing on the whole work hard thing. It just means having a little space and breathing room, a margin of error for hiccups and mistakes, and a backup plan for when things go sideways, or worse. Running everything up to (and sometimes beyond) the bleeding edge--managing your inventory and supplies on a "just in time" basis and not accepting pieces and parts a moment too soon--turns out to a very risky proposition when your supply chain chokes, your customers swarm, demand spikes, and your shelves are suddenly empty.
The economic pain from this global lack of foresight and preparation won't end when the pandemic does. Try to get a critical electronic part for your Lexus and the dealer will wish you well, give you a loaner, and pray that the parts eventually return to inventory this summer. Last week, the Jeep plant in Belvidere, Illinois, which employs 3,600 people, shut down along with four other impacted factories because of a shortage of semiconductor chips. There's a lot less steel these days, it's all about smarts.
So, my new definition of a slacker is someone who is smart and understands that the new three R's of business are reserves, redundancy, and resilience. A slacker builds and manages his or her business in a way that incorporates these necessities and creates the "slack" necessary to survive whatever the world may throw his or her way. Here are three rules for becoming the perfect slacker:
1. Adequate reserves are a critical component of your business model.
It's clear that virtually no business had the necessary cash on hand or other reserves (including lines of credit and other liquid assets) to survive a once-in-a generation economic disruption like last year's. But the experience highlighted for all of us the extent to which far too many firms were underfunded, over-extended, over-expanding, and otherwise skating far too close to the edge of financial ruin long before the virus hit. As Warren Buffett said: "Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked."
2. Redundancy is costly and unnecessarily duplicative--until your base systems fail.
During the pandemic, almost every business in the U.S. and the government itself was at the mercy of outsourced and distant supply chains, as well as victimized by a classic strategy that attempted to minimize the theoretical cost of holding excess inventory on site. We ignored the less likely but, in the event, far more costly prospect of completely interrupting production and manufacturing due to the unavailability of critical parts and components. Backups, onsite storage, alternative supply channels that aren't single-threaded, and business interruption insurance are all expensive undertakings. But modestly reduced margins are a reasonably fair tradeoff when the possible alternative is shutting down your operations entirely for lengthy periods of time.
3. Resilience means building businesses that can quickly measure, and then bend and adapt to, unforeseen stresses and circumstances without breaking.
For all the fashionable talk about agility and flexibility, the pandemic demonstrated just how brittle and hidebound so many businesses are. And how painfully long it took them to react, adapt to, and respond to the new business conditions and constantly changing operating requirements that the rapidly spreading virus triggered. The tragically pathetic response by the Trump administration (accompanied by the criminal and ongoing denial of the virus's severity) made things even worse.
Very few businesses have constructed circuit breakers, gutters, or other safeguards that effectively put a floor, and some fail-safe curbs, against the free-fall debacles that we witnessed during the pandemic. Too many firms found that the metrics and measurements they had traditionally used in their accounting and management systems, to respond to changes in their markets and circumstances, were too slow and too narrow to capture the scale and speed of the shifts. It's too often the case that you only learn where the limits are once you've gone past them. Early warning systems, rapid response plans, and far faster decisions would have saved lots of lives and livelihoods last year.
Finally, once things are rebuilt and again operating smoothly, implementing regular stress testing and failure drills are equally important, and rarely done, steps that will help protect your business. It's much like the need to periodically replace the batteries in your flashlight and smoke detectors.
These are another set of preventative costs that are easy to put off or avoid. It's just human nature. We're so happy to be back in business that we don't even want to think about any of the ugly alternatives. That's how they eventually come to bite you in the ass.
A word to the wise: It's only when they go wrong that machines remind you how powerful they are. Once you're up and running again, don't slack off.