Saturday, November 15th, 2008

In Search of Flexibility

Flexibility is a word that has positive connotations, at least in the Western world. It is considered a business success factor. From a language point of view, flexible means pliable, yielding to pressure. Why would that always be a desirable characteristic? It simply isn’t. So let’s dig deeper into flexibility. The statements that follow are intentionally provocative.

(1) Flexibility is the opposite of quality. Masters of any craft have this in common: they never compromise, they don’t cut corners, they are very far from flexible. You don’t tell a master violinist: Be flexible, start painting. They could start painting, but quality, music as well as painting, would suffer.

(2) Flexibility is often defined in terms of the absence of certain factors. Absence of rigid organization and methods, absence of prestigious thinking. However, to mean anything flexibility must be defined as the presence of something. What?

(3) Flexibility has no value in itself. It has a value only in relationship to a goal. For instance, when the Nazis invaded France, Marshal Pétain took a very flexible attitude and welcomed the new rulers. Marshal de Gaulle, on the other hand, was very inflexible in his resistance. Pétain was later executed for his flexibility, while the inflexible de Gaulle rose to the highest position.

(4) Flexibility can only be had at the expense of something else. Is a customer prepared to pay for the fact that he could have had a certain service in N other ways? Wouldn’t the customer rather find a business that provides the service in the way he wants it, without charging for the overhead of flexibility?

On closer examination we label something flexibility only if it agrees with our goals. For instance, we don’t really call Pétain’s behavior flexibility. The exact term is high treason. If a business promises something one day, and something else another day, we don’t say the business is flexible, just unreliable.

So, flexible always refers to something that agrees with the speaker’s goals. Other words are reserved for behaviors that don’t agree with our goals.

If a business goes out of their way to provide a service to us, that’s when we could use the term flexibility. In our Western culture it’s difficult to admit that we really care about a customer. We have to clothe it in business speak like business processes and marketing strategy. Perhaps the word flexibility comes to the rescue when we have to justify in the board room that we took exceptional measures to cater to a customer’s needs?

Comments are closed.