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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.           Vol. 31, No. 9 * May 10, 1999

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Managing by the Seat of Your Pants

The HR Doctor has observed that some managers move along in their careers on the basis of "dealing with things as they come." They are kin to the early pilots who would fly by means of "dead reckoning" or "fly by the seat of your pants." In other words, these managers approach their work without the guidance of a map, compass or flight plan.

In the modern era of public administration and human resources management, this approach is dangerous and simply wrong. What might have worked one or two generations ago in piloting a small, single engine airplane will not work in the era of supersonic and jumbo jet aircraft.

It would be inappropriate and dangerous. Yet, why is this attitude so widespread? Part of the answer, in the HR Doctor’s experience, rests in the fact that many public agencies have built in "safety nets"– some of which they may not even realize exist.

Our agencies’ bureaucracy i makes it hard to change. The organization may tend to reward risk avoidance, rather than reasonable risk taking. There may be little or no budget or management accountability. Problems may be allowed to fester and go uninvestigated and unresolved for years. Combining lack of accountability with entitlements such as tenure builds a strong package that may often impede performance excellence, rather than encourage it.

Several recent HR Doctor columns have focused on various elements of civil service reform, taking excuses away, and support and accountability for supervisors.

Is there a better model out there to replace "seat of the pants" management? The HR Doctor believes strongly that there is. As a recent birthday gift, the HR daughters, Elyse and Rachel, chipped in to buy their old Dad a new toy – a global positioning system (GPS) receiver.

GPS devices pinpoint your location and help you navigate unknown territory with great precision and security. This is done by receiving signals from several of the 24 fixed position navigation satellites orbiting the earth. Using a GPS allows you to plan a journey and substitute benchmarks for guesses and relative precision for "seat of the pants" efforts.

The analogy to management practices is clear. Begin with an objective (i.e. a goal or "vision" of where personally or the organization wish to be).

Next, determine where you currently are located. Take a "snapshot" of the current state of the organization. This is the same thing as doing a reconnaissance of your current position. Once you have identified where you are and where you want to go, it becomes far easier to create a "flight plan" to get there.

The flight plan involves decisions about the speed, direction and resources you will need for the journey. Periodically, along the way, it becomes necessary to take new reading, to follow your progress and to determine whether course corrections are necessary.

The HR Doctor also recommends that the very creation of the plan, as well as its measurement components, be something in which you involve other members of the staff. The involvement is another form of leadership. By helping others buy into your vision for the organization, and indeed, making it their vision as well, your chances of a successful flight are much improved.

You can contact the HR Doctor at the e-mail address below or by fax at 954/796-9495.

Best Wishes,
The HR Doctor
e-mail at

(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him at Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)


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