Eight to Late

Understanding “flexibility” – a close-up view of an organizational platitude

with 10 comments

Introduction

Flexibility is one of those buzzwords that keeps coming up in organizational communiques and discussions. People are continually asked to display flexibility, without ever being told what the term means:  flexible workplaces, flexible attitudes, flexible jobs – the word itself has a flexible meaning that depends on the context in which it is used and by whom.

When words are used in this way they become platitudes – empty words that make a lot of noise. In this post, I analyse the platitude, flexibility, as it is used in organisations. My discussion is based on a paper by Thomas Eriksen entitled, Mind the Gap: Flexibility, Epistemology and the Rhetoric of New Work.

Background – a bit about organizational platitudes

One of the things that struck me when I moved from academia to industry is the difference in the way words or phrases are used in the two domains. In academics one has to carefully define the terms one uses (particularly if one is coining a new term) whereas in business it doesn’t seem to matter, words can mean whatever one wants them to mean (OK, this is an exaggeration, but not by too much). Indeed, as Paul Culmsee and I discuss in the first chapter of The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices, many terms that are commonly bandied about in organizations are platitudes because they are understood differently by different people.

A good example of a platitude is the word governance. One manager may see governance as being largely about oversight and control whereas another might interpret it as being about providing guidance.  Such varying interpretations can result in major differences in the way the two managers implement governance:  the first one might enforce it as a compliance-oriented set of processes that leave little room for individual judgement while the other might implement it as a broad set of guidelines that leave many of the decisions in the hands of those who are actually doing the work. Needless to say, the results in the two cases are likely to be different too.

Flexibility – the conventional view

A good place to start our discussion of flexibility is with the dictionary. The online Oxford Dictionary defines at as:

Flexibility (noun):

  • the ability to be easily modified
  • willingness to change or compromise

The term is widely used in both these senses in organizational settings. For example, people speak of flexible designs (i.e. designs that can be easily modified) or flexible people (referring to those who are willing to change or compromise). However,  and this is the problem:  the term is open to interpretation – what Jack might term a flexible approach may be seen by Jill as a complete lack of method. These differences in interpretation become particularly obvious when the word is used in a broad context – such as in a statement justifying an organizational change.  An executive might see a corporate restructure and the resulting changes in jobs/roles as a means to achieve organizational flexibility, but those affected by it may see it as constraining theirs.  As Eriksen states:

Jobs are flexible in the sense that they are unstable and uncertain, few employees hold the same jobs for many years, the content of jobs can be changed almost overnight, and the boundaries between work and leisure are negotiable and chronically fuzzy.

Indeed, such “flexibility” which requires one to change at short notice results in a fragmentation of individual experience and a resulting loss of a coherent narrative of one’s life. It appears that increased flexibility in one aspect results in a loss of flexibility in another. Any sensible definition of flexibility ought to reflect this.

Understanding flexibility

Consider the following definition of flexibility proposed by Gregory Bateson:

Flexibility is uncommitted potential for change

This deceptively simple statement is a good place to start understanding what flexibility really means for projects, organisations …and even software systems.

As Eriksen tells us, Bateson proposed this definition in the context of ecology. In particular, Bateson had in mind the now obvious notion that the increased flexibility we gain through our increasingly energy-hungry lifestyles results in a decrease in the environment’s capacity to cope with the consequences. This is true of flexibility in any context: a gain in flexibility in one dimension will necessarily be accompanied by a loss of flexibility in another.

Another implication of the above definition is that a system that is running at or near the limits of its operating variables cannot be flexible.  The following examples should make this clear:

  • A project team that is putting in 18 hour workdays in order to finish a project on time.
  • A car that’s being driven at top speed.
  • A family living beyond their means.

All these systems are operating at or near their limits, they have little or no spare capacity to accommodate change.

A third implication of the definition follows from the preceding one:  the key variables of a flexible system should lie in the mid-range of their upper and lower limits. In terms of above examples:

  • The project team should be putting in normal hours.
  • The car should be driven at or below the posted road speed limits
  • The family should be living within its income, with a reasonable amount to spare.

Of course, the whole point of ensuring that systems operate in their comfort zone is that they can be revved up if the need arises. Such revving up, however,  should be an exceptional circumstance rather than the norm – a point that those who run projects, organisations (and, yes, even vehicles) often tend to forget. If one operates a system at the limits of its tolerance for too long, not only will it not be flexible, it will break.

Flexibility in the workplace

As mentioned in the introduction, the term flexibility keeps cropping up in organizational settings: corporate communiques exhort employees to be flexible in the face of change.  This is typically a coded signal that employees should expect uncertainty and be prepared to adjust to it.  A related manifestation of flexibility is the blurring of the distinction between work and personal life. As Eriksen puts it:

The term flexibility is often used to describe this new situation: Jobs are flexible in the sense that they are unstable and uncertain, few employees hold the same jobs for many years, the content of jobs can be changed, and the boundaries between work and leisure are poorly defined.

This trend is aided by recent developments in technology that enable employees to be perpetually on call. This is often sold as a work from home initiative but usually ends up being much more.  Eriksen has this to say about home offices:

One recent innovation typically associated with flexibility is the home office. In Scandinavia (and some other prosperous, technologically optimistic regions), many companies equipped some of their employees with home computers with online access to the company network in the early 1990s, in order to enhance their flexibility. This was intended to enable employees to work from home part of the time, thereby making the era when office workers were chained to the office desk all day obsolete.

In the early days, there were widespread worries among employers to the effect that a main outcome of this new flexibility would consist in a reduction of productivity. Since there was no legitimate way of checking how the staff actually spent their time out of the office, it was often suspected that they worked less from home than they were supposed to. If this were in fact the case, working from home would have led to a real increase in the flexibility of time budgeting. However, work researchers eventually came up with a different picture. By the late 1990s, hardly anybody spoke of the home office as a convenient way of escaping from work; rather, the concern among unionists as well as researchers was now that increasing numbers of employees were at pains to distinguish between working hours and leisure time, and were suffering symptoms of burnout and depression. The home office made it difficult to distinguish between contexts that were formerly mutually exclusive because of different physical locations.

It is interesting to see this development in the light of Bateson’s definition of flexibility: the employee gains flexibility in space (he or she can work from home or from the office) at the expense of flexibility in time (organization time encroaches on personal time). As Eriksen states:

 There seems to be a classic Batesonian flexibility trade-off associated with the new information technologies: increased spatial flexibility entails decreased temporal flexibility. If inaccessibility and ‘empty time’ are understood as scarce resources, the context of ‘new work’ thus seems to be an appropriate context for a new economics as well. In fact, a main environmental challenge of our near future will consist in protecting slow time and gaps from environmental degradation.

In short, it appears that flexibility for the organization necessarily implies a loss of flexibility for the individual.

Conclusion

Flexibility is in the eye of the beholder: an action to increase organisational flexibility by, say, redeploying employees would likely be seen by those affected as a move that constrains their  (individual) flexibility.  Such a dual meaning is characteristic of many organizational platitudes such as Excellence, Synergy and Governance. It is an interesting exercise to analyse such platitudes and expose the difference between their espoused and actual meanings.  So I sign off for 2013, wishing you  many hours of platitude-deconstructing fun :-)

Written by K

December 11, 2013 at 8:34 pm

10 Responses

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  1. Kailash,
    This is thoughtful perspective on aspects of flexibility. But going off topic, I think it could be worthwhile to dig into platitudes a bit more.

    I’ve read chapter one of you book. Something I don’t recall it touching on is how platitudes in a different sense are used to help define groups, cliques, or indeed teams. What I mean by this is that one can be an “insider” by virtue of the fact that you get the specific meaning within your group for a term or phrase that is fuzzy or contrary to those outside. Sort of like the Masons with their secret ceremonies and customs. I think there’s a lot of material to be mined here in terms of forming teams for projects versus effecting change in environments with strongly formed teams (recognizing them, and engaging and influencing them).

    David Turnbull

    December 12, 2013 at 2:00 am

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for reading and for bringing up an interesting angle that I hadn’t thought about.

      An example that I’ve witnessed a few times is platitudinous terms being used ironically as in-jokes within a project team. This certainly has the effect of binding a team together…though perhaps not in the way
      the project manager intends!

      Regards,

      Kailash.

      K

      December 13, 2013 at 10:30 pm

  2. Brilliant as always. There are many silly platitudes in organizations: mission statements, vision statements. Flexibility is now synonymous with ‘flexibility in resourcing’ and any corporate communication attempting to suggest otherwise will not be trusted.

    Mind if I riff?

    There’s an curious gap between the laboratory of academia and the messiness of the real world, real people working in an organizational setting. Sometimes, organizations become environments antithetical to human intelligence and the human spirit and effective use of language as you discovered. People behave from their own interpretations of words and terms and beliefs … which might not always match what the dictionary says, or the original context of the word. In organizations, people can’t or don’t make the time to check for understanding or to see if they are on common ground — there is much that’s done on assumption.

    I had not read Mind the Gap before now. I might take issue with some of the … mental models contained within it. ;-)

    Keeping in mind that academic research tends to be a controlled environment — even action research — and the real world is less so, sometimes, it’s hard to fathom conclusions and explanations, unless digging into belief systems that seem to peep through. Which in a way, makes all research relevant only to the culture within which it is conducted.

    For example, the paper highlights a researcher, Sennet, who “argues that flexible work leads to a fragmentation of the person. His informants typically complain about the lack of linear narrative in their lives; they move from task to task, from job to job and in some cases from house to house, without ever feeling that what they do has cumulative results and can be fitted into an overarching, linear narrative about their lives.” This is a particularly Western world value and belief, which granted, is the world we live in, but it’s not helpful and it’s not real.

    Since the end of the second world war we’ve come to expect stability, security, predictability and control, in all aspects of our life, and we tend to believe that there is that “linear narrative” in our life. Stable work. Set worktimes, clear boundaries between work and the rest of life, a balance between work and life. A certain kind of employment contract that guarantees employment security. That belief, with all its expectations, when examined deeply, is rather unrealistic and irrational, and bound to be a huge barrier to adapting to any change, particularly the kind of social and economic change we’re witnessing, and even moreso the change we’re experiencing in our organizations. There is a large part of the change that’s forced by ineffective and bad leadership and poor decision making. But part of it is the nature of the market, the world we’ve lived in since the time of the Enlightenment and industrial revolution, til about the early 1980s. But we hold fast to what we believe.

    One academic researcher told me a few years ago — why NOT send all the grunt manufacturing work to China and India? That leaves us with the fun stuff!

    If it is true that we deal in knowledge now as a commodity — knowledge workers — and knowledge work is both mental and emotional work, which is work that uses, brain mind and body, then there is no clear downtime and offtime. Besides, there is no such thing as work life balance — we only have one life. Creating boundaries around our time is a cultural issues. And that fragmented self..? Our ‘self’ is multifaceted — a single self in all situations is no longer a psychological truth — and yet we imagine that we suppress our real self in an organizational setting and let it free when we are out of it, except now, there is no out of it. 24/7 accessibility and availability… tis a recipe for general inner unrest.

    Linear narrative about our life? Oh, the stories we tell. Our brains are designed to find connections. Even when there aren’t any.

    Our imaginings of the future of work is not exactly matching the reality, but there might be other things at play — not the least of which might be historic shifts in economy and empire. Perhaps it’s flexibility for the organization and its management, and adaptability for employees?

    FS

    December 12, 2013 at 2:20 am

    • Hi FS,

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to riff. I look forward to your comments as they always make me think.

      Some thoughts that come to mind:

      It is true that research in this and related areas is based predominantly on studies done in Western settings and contexts and therefore one might expect the findings to be specific to such cultures. On the other hand, however, globalization has served to even out some of these differences. For example, I would hazard a guess that employment security is pretty much universally seen as a good thing by employees (employers, of course, would have a different take on it). Moreover, work modes that were considered unusual some time ago are now commonplace the world over – outsourcing and the shift of employment terms from permanent to contract work being two examples. Since these changes have happened over a very short time, a generation or two, it’s little wonder that we find them unsettling…and dare I use the word, fragmenting :-)

      Regarding narratives: In our quest to make sense of our lives it is but natural that we would look for simple linear narratives – A happened because I did B, and I did B because of C…and so on. This becomes difficult in rapidly changing environments so it is quite understandable why people in such situations might feel a loss of control and somewhat disconnected from their experiences. Moreover, I think this sense of disconnectedness isn’t specific to a particular (say, Western) culture – I suspect it is as true in, say, India as it is in the United States.

      Your point about a multifaceted self is spot on, and may be why people feel disconnected with what they do. Perhaps we need to actively cultivate different personas – for work, socialising etc. – and be comfortable with them coexisting, and coming to the fore as and when needed. I know a few people who seem to have this ability, and I am always amazed at how they manage to do it.

      Thanks again for your comment – as always, you’ve got me looking at things from a different perspective.

      Regards,

      Kailash.

      K

      December 13, 2013 at 10:41 pm

      • K:

        Very true — we have exported our ways of organizational and cultural being. Perhaps those people who are able to be different ways in different situations are simply able to give expressions to all parts of their human self — as much as we’d like to think that we are this one, singular unchanging self, that is proving to be an unrealistic view…

        and of course we want stability, economically and psychologically — and yet what is it ever that stays the same, except this human thing called curiosity which manifests as good and less than good? (Way outside the scope of project management, but pertinent, nonetheless). ;-)

        FS

        December 15, 2013 at 11:54 pm

  3. Increase in spatial flexibility can actually mean an increase in temporal flexibility, if one can distinguish or invent new contexts.

    Susanta Tewari

    December 12, 2013 at 4:29 am

    • Hi Susanta,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      I’m curious – would you be able to give me an example of what such a new context might look like? I suspect that even if one can increase spatial and temporal flexibility simultaneously, it would necessarily be accompanied by a decrease in flexibility of some other dimension. This is just a guess though, and I’d be very interested to know if you have any counterexamples.

      Regards,

      Kailash.

      K

      December 13, 2013 at 10:43 pm

  4. It’s true that “flexibility” at work often means something negative for employees (e.g. lost freedom), just as “efficiency” frequently has negative connotations. These are platitudes, but they are often euphemisms in the organisational setting as well. Flexibility softens the blow while introducing uncertainty for the employee. How can an employee complain though? After all, who doesn’t want to work for a flexible and efficient organisation?

    On another note, I find it instructive when the employer shortens “flexible” to “flex”, as in “flex time”. The connotation here is more casual, but often truly means loss of freedom for the employee.

    Enjoy your respite, Kailash! Looking forward to reading your blog again in the new year.

    Phil

    December 13, 2013 at 12:31 am

    • Hi Phil,

      Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to make an interesting point. Indeed, euphemisms such as “flex” and “flexi-time” tend to hide the fact that it does entail a loss of flexibility in some other dimension.

      I wish you and the family an enjoyable festive season, and look forward to continuing our conversations in 2014!

      Regards,

      Kailash.

      K

      December 13, 2013 at 10:48 pm

  5. […] Kailash Awati notes that flexibility is a platitude, disguising trade-offs that we might not otherwise make. […]


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