The case for gophers in the workplace

When I worked at McDonalds many years ago, for the most part roles were assigned similar to a football team. Out the back we had the person on “Production” wrapping the burgers and running the show, “Grill” to flip the patties, “Dress” to put the secret sauce on the Big Macs. Step out front and you could be on “Front Counter” serving the glorious customers, “Drive-Through” – well, I’m sure that one’s obvious – or “Dining Room” to empty the bins and clean the tables. Not much missed, and it was a mark of your talents (and the little stickers you could get under the name on your badge) if you could fulfil a number of roles, and even better if you could multitask in the same shift.

There was another role as wellphoto of a gopher, which was made up of a multitasker; the Gopher. This individual had a remit to roam around at will, looking for areas under pressure and jumping in where required – effectively, always looking to find the weakest link in the chain and make sure it didn’t break. I’ve seen similar systems in restaurants and cafes.

Working in bureaucracies the past 3-4 years, it’s amazed me how many times I see a lack of accountability, encapsulated by that glorious phrase: “sorry, but that’s not in my job description.” Other times, I’ve heard stories where one department is bursting at the seams with deliverables and stress, whereas another throws footballs to each other over the tumbleweeds in the corridor. Communication and better management could certainly make demand and resource management more efficient, but the problem would still be locked in the system itself.

Letting a lot of gophers loose, on the other hand, would institute flexibility as the basis for the working framework. Adjustments to the team would take place rapidly, with the resourcing tools struggling to keep pace – and I would bet, often with milestone and deliverable tracking actually falling behind the outputs of the team. An example might be a gopher involved in business analyis early on, but after a break from the project, switching to be part of the testing team when the inevitable raft of changes and a looming deadline raise the pressure to criticality.

There’s a lot of side benefits here, too:

  • Staff get to see the end-to-end process, fomenting much greater satisfaction and ownership of the product.
  • A common thread of communication throughout the project lifecycle.
  • Greater variety and understanding of other’s roles – and greater trust.
  • Less wastage of staff – instead, a diverse bunch who can ebb or flow to meet a dynamic project.
  • Management get to worry less about keeping an eye on every minute detail – because the gophers are across a diversity of different tasks and how they link together.

Presumably as well, staff not only get more interesting jobs, but a broader outlook, which in turn makes them the perfect candidates for promotion to management roles. I’d be interested to see whether traditional HR, bar graduate rotations, have considered the same as standard practice.

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