Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Semper Gumby

I have adopted a saying I picked up someplace else—I can’t remember where—that has provided a certain “whatever” outlet to things that go differently than planned.

You’ve probably also felt the frustration that occurs when your best-laid plans are suddenly rendered useless by the whim of a boss, an un-expected change in direction from a supervisor, or a catastrophic alteration of your day.

Semper Gumby.
Always flexible.

With apologies to the U.S. Marines’ code of semper fi, “Always Faithful,” and the "do or die" motto of Marine wives' semper gumby mind set, such a simple, mental attitude of being flexible in the face of the ridiculous can sometimes be the only thing that keeps your sanity from snapping like an over-stretched rubber band.

In some situations, a snap-change of plan is just not the best idea.

If you have already surrounded yourself with the best, most-talented team you can find, you may find that you’re squandering their talent—and your time—by not better preparing your role as a leader before sending commands to the troops on the ground. If you’re wasting their time, you’re wasting your money.

Last weekend I was amazed to observe the intricacies of the pit crews working at the Houston Grand Prix. Controlled chaos is an apt description to the un-initiated, but as I learned how these teams of precision mechanics worked and flowed and depended upon one another to get a race car stopped, raised, changed, dropped, and on it’s way back onto the track in mere seconds, I gained a deeper appreciation for the teamwork and harmony that must exist in order for that squad to function.

Sometimes we’re in the pit crew, and sometimes we find ourselves behind the wheel of the car.

How we manage the expectations and talents of those who are scrambling on our behalf can very much affect how we run our race, and how we finish.

There is a place for flexibility in any organization—the ability to stretch and contract to fit the moment is a valuable trait to possess. But as managers, we also need to recognize there are a finite number of flex cycles possible in a given scenario before "semper gumby" becomes semper fiasco.

According to Gartner Research, 70% of organizations failing to correct the causes of employee unhappiness will find themselves on the defensive against litigation and PR gaffes as the result of poor quality service and business practices, mostly stemming from unhappy, over-flexed workers. Gartner says there are four main reasons for such disgruntlement, which no amount semper gumby can fully overcome, if not recognized and corrected.

One of those sources of dissatisfaction is from toiling in a “Get Rich Quick” environment, where workers are hired by entrepreneurs promising an initial public offering (IPO) within 12 months, or some future stake in riches to come.

With the big pay come long hours and a tunnel-vision focus on company growth. While both the bosses and the recruits do agree to exploit each other, such a relationship is unsustainable: IPOs stall, entrepreneurs run out of steam and inspiration, and the staff burns out.

Semper crispy.

While money makes the world go round, “Pay to Stay” behavior is another turn towards disaster. If the money’s too good to be true, it’s can be because management is weak, and employees' salaries are continually raised to make up for constant understaffing and old-school thinking.

The fallacy that employees can be kept content with higher salaries is a dangerous exercise in smoke and mirrors, and the resultingworker indifference to quality defects, service problems, brown-nosed backing of questionable strategies, can only lead to higher turnover, lost suppliers, lost buyers, and lost market position.

Semper loser.

Gartner describes the frenetic, random practice of a new idea in a new direction everyday as Fire Drill behavior. Constant changes in direction, continually altered priorities, and inconsistent performance metrics are distractions from the pursuit of opportunities, because of the impulsive nature of the leadership.

Fire Drills cause failure in completion of new initiatives, inability to drop outmoded products, ballooning costs and busted budgets, and a real sense of failure in accomplishing anything by employees.

Semper impulsar.

The fourth danger sign is when companies box-in their employees, sacrificing workforce effectiveness in exchange for operational efficiency. Do you talk about personal development and new opportunities, but when someone makes a move to pursue those opportunities, they are denied or delayed—why rock the boat?

Gartner suggests that if you’re seeing a greater reliance on outside contractors, noticing some subtle employee boycotting, and starting to hear negative recruitment feedback…you’re probably already having to deal with low morale, customer apathy, and shrinking market share, too.

Semper dud.

If left unchecked, the next exhibition of semper gumbiness you’ll use will be in finding another gig.

1 comment:

Reg Adkins said...

Great post. You may like mine on managers who lack communication skills.