THE BAKER'S MENU
An effective public works manager...is flexible
Susan M. Hann, P.E., AICP
Deputy City Manager
City of Palm Bay, Florida
Chair, APWA Leadership and Management Committee
Note: The APWA Leadership and Management Committee has developed a set of core competencies for public works managers. The series of articles in the APWA Reporter based on these competencies—entitled "The Baker's Menu"—is designed to help public works professionals recognize and develop managerial talent. Included in this issue is the ninth in the series of competencies recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or at email@example.com.
Flexibility has always been a challenge for me. As an aging athlete, with lots of time constraints, the last thing I want to do is take 10 minutes to stretch my hamstrings after a long bike ride. It hurts, it takes time and the benefits aren't immediately obvious. Of course, anyone remotely aware of athletic principles will tell you that flexibility is the foundation for better performance. So, instead of spending a few minutes stretching after each athletic event, I end up paying an athletic trainer, chiropractor and massage therapist to fix me later. I know this system won't earn me the "sharpest crayon in the box" award, and I diligently promise myself I'll do better, but I sure have a hard time making greater flexibility a priority.
My husband will also tell you that personal flexibility is not my strongest asset either. If I'm expecting a big stack of chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast and he makes whole grain waffles instead, the whole day might be a loss.
However, putting aside my personal tendencies of rigid muscles and behaviors, I strongly believe that flexibility and the ability to handle changing circumstances are critical skills for those of us leading and managing organizations. In fact, leadership is all about inspiring and managing change, so flexibility is an essential ingredient.
Most of us in the public works arena are used to change. In a political environment change is a constant, so by the nature of our work we are fortunate to have many opportunities to practice our flexibility skills. However, the more challenging issue for public works leaders and managers is likely to be the ability to judge the appropriate degree of flexibility in a given set of circumstances.
For example, when your boss says the citizens want the speed limit lowered to 15 miles per hour on a through street, what is your response? Do you provide the pre-programmed "absolutely not, that violates a myriad of traffic engineering principles" response? Do you say you'll study the situation to give yourself a week or two to figure out a better answer? Do you offer to do a pilot project for thirty days and quietly ask the police department to ticket everyone so they'll quit complaining? Or, do you just say "OK" and change the signs? Each of us would make an individual choice about this issue. Our thought process would likely involve a thorough risk analysis including consideration of public safety, professional ethics, precedent issues, and preservation of employment consequences.
In addition to our own flexibility pressures, as public works professionals we are often in a position to request or demand more flexibility from our administrative partners. Most of us have dreamed of having more flexible purchasing rules and more flexible human resources rules (or better yet, no rules at all). Flexibility in these arenas would certainly make our jobs easier. We could get the resources we need, quickly. Of course, we might not get the best price or we might violate some obscure federal labor law, but in many cases we would gladly accept the risk to achieve better performance.
Anecdotally, it seems that many ridiculous administrative rules were born out of good, ethical people trying to prevent something bad from happening. Over time, the rules remain and get stronger, but the reason becomes more obscure, leading to my favorite generic excuse for poor processes: "We've Always Done It That Way!"
As stewards of public trust, it is our responsibility to continuously evaluate and improve the "system" to ensure our processes lead to efficient and effective performance. Many of our organizations are moving towards performance accountability. The trend leads to an assessment of outcomes rather than of process. The challenge will be the degree to which we (ourselves, our employees, our organizations and our citizens) are willing to accept risk in order to achieve greater outcomes.
Imagine a highly flexible human resources system. You are left to your own devices to hire whomever you want. Your first reaction is: "Great!" However, the downside is that now the responsibility is all yours. You can't blame the human resources department for sending you poor candidates, for taking too long to do background checks or for restricting your flexibility in establishing pay grades. If your new hires succeed or fail—if you get sued or praised—the consequences all rest on your shoulders.
So, how do we reach the optimum relationship between minimizing risk and maximizing flexibility to get the job done? These questions are important on a personal as well as an organizational level. Start by assessing your role in the organization and evaluating organizational policies that lack the flexibility needed to optimize results. Can you bring together a team to analyze these policies and suggest improvements? In our organization, the City Manager commissioned a team of employees whose daily work routine was impacted by purchasing rules. For example, some employees had to drive many miles to a low-bid hardware store to save a few dollars on nails. This didn't make good financial sense, even though our auditor might agree these were the cheapest nails. Employees with these types of issues were brought together to help change the rules and add flexibility. Of course, with more flexibility, these employees and the departments they represent have to be more accountable for their decisions. A larger element of trust is now part of the organization. Questions about why they are buying more expensive nails may have to be answered in the future, but for now, our purchasing guidelines are being changed to allow for common-sense decisions. In addition, the underlying message is that we trust our employees to make the best decisions for the organization and for the citizens that we serve.
Note, however, that trust and accountability are now key elements of the process. As a public works leader and manager, you can help prepare your organization for increasing trust and accountability by demonstrating these attributes personally. Your personal behavior as well as your expectations for your coworkers and staff should always include these traits. If your natural tendency is towards less flexibility, try a few low-risk examples. Let your employees make some decisions that you would have made in the past. Allow your staff to try a few new ideas. Give your staff some parameters—such as you'd like to provide some customer services on Saturdays—and let them give you some ideas as to how to accomplish the mission. Let them experiment and find the best solutions.
The introduction or enhancement of flexibility is not without risk, but resisting change is also risky, as a stagnant organization (even a successful one) cannot continue to be responsive to its citizens' needs. As a public works leader and manager, you can set the parameters for your organization. Are you open to new ideas and receptive to relaxing the rules? Do you demonstrate a willingness to take reasonable risks yourself? Because the appropriate degree of flexibility is subject to interpretation, as a leader you will need to demonstrate the parameters for your organization through your actions.
So, stretch your personal and professional horizons. As flexibility becomes part of your daily routine, you can expect to see improved performance. As I've learned from my athletic experiences, flexibility can be achieved through daily dedication to incremental improvement—although for some reason, I still cling to the hope that my hamstring muscles will achieve flexibility through some magic that doesn't involve any work on my part. Unfortunately, this method, while agonizingly painful, is also completely ineffective.
So, next week, when I pay the price of passive resistance to stretching, I'll make yet another commitment to improved flexibility. Maybe someday I'll be able to touch my toes without bending my knees.
"Blessed are the flexible—for they shall not be bent out of shape." - Sue Petrie Marsha
"We must change in order to survive." - Pearl Bailey
"The main dangers in this life are the people who want to change everything—or nothing." - Lady Nancy Astor
"It is easier to bend the body than the will." - Old Chinese Proverb
Sue Hann can be reached at (321) 952-3413 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Core Competencies at a Glance