Paradox of Structure

With possibly more optimism than time I routinely register for MOOC courses through coursera.org. I don’t bother with the assignments too much, just soak in some of the lectures. Not long ago I watched one around Creativity, Innovation & Change and the concept they presented has since come up more than once.

The anecdote they shared was that if you studied how children played around a playground in an open space you’d find they would tend to stay close to the center. Like electrons in a tight orbit around the nucleus of an atom. Though there was no fence to restrict them they would stick to the area that would feel safest and would avoid roaming off into the open areas.

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When they were instead playing around a playground that was fenced in they wouldn’t technically be able to roam around with as much freedom. However what they found is with the presence of the clear boundaries they were much less constrained to the center. In contrast they ranged around using more of the available space with more comfort.

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The paradox of structure is that, whatever its nature, any structure is both enabling and limiting at the same time.

This is a truism I’ve seen in practice many times. Introducing standards and procedures for project development may see initial adoption pains, but most developers are rapidly productive with better quality code when they have those structures presented to them in advance.

We’ve all attended meetings that lacked any agenda and ended up with one or two people talking a lot and little group productivity. A well run meeting with a clear focus is generally enabling to all the attendees. People can see where, when and how they can contribute and will take advantage of that comfort.

This isn’t to suggest that building walls and constraining everyone is the extreme we should rush to. Simply consider how the structures you introduce will operate when you’re defining the environment in which people will operate. Are the limits set far enough to still enable your team the freedom to be productive? Do the rules have the flexibility to adapt if those constraints are blocking? What is the ideal balance of structure to enable and align your team?

When I’m starting with a new client one of the first things I’ll ask about are their policies or procedures. I’m not excited to march in formation, I want to know where the lines are drawn so I know just how much freedom and latitude I have.

Look at the structures around you. Do they constrain your creativity or do they help to organize and focus it? Who says you can’t be creative inside the proverbial box?

Like that fence around the playground it’s just a structure.

Recognize its shape and size and you’ll see how much you can fill it.

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