A balanced scale, representing scructure vs. flexibility
When to Prioritize Structure and When to Go All-in on Flexibility
A balanced scale, representing scructure vs. flexibility

When to Prioritize Structure and When to Go All-in on Flexibility

As so many of us sit in our newly minted home offices, the push and pull between structure and flexibility can feel constant. “I should try to stick to a routine”, we might tell ourselves – “create a bit of structure and predictability for my slightly ambled mind.” Or perhaps it’s best to loosen up and let ourselves figure out what actually works now. Surely it doesn’t actually matter if we take our first coffee at 10:30 am?

While that tension might feel amplified by the pandemic, it has long been at the core of everything from law, to leadership, to product development. Structure provides the basic scaffolding upon which flexibility and creativity can grow. It’s what the letter of the law is to the spirit of the law; what closed-source products like Apple are to open-sourced ones like Android. One offers the control and homogeneity needed for efficiency, while the other sets a broader stage for interpretation and innovation.

In many ways, a better part of the structure vs flexibility tension boils down to one deceptively simple question: is your priority how a task gets done, or why it needs to happen? And let’s be clear, there’s no right answer. Some tasks require free-reign creativity while others rely on process to be effective. The key is understanding the strengths of each approach in order to identify the right one.

The case for structure

Humans are fundamental pattern-seekers. On a primal level, we crave order and clarity in order to diminish the amount of energy spent continuously assessing the level of risk or opportunity around us. In fact, it’s been shown that if those patterns aren’t immediately obvious, we tend to make them up. By setting clear rules and imposing a repeatable sequence of steps or movements, rigid structures allow us to preserve energy and establish new neural pathways towards efficiency.

Few frameworks have made a more powerful business case for structure than Henry Ford’s iconic assembly line.  By precisely isolating, regimenting, timing, and improving every minute task, Ford reduced total build time for a single car from over 12 hours to 93 minutes. The proof was in the proverbial pudding, and would be a benchmark for operational efficiency for decades to come. 

As with the assembly line, structure is most effective for work that heavily depends on how it’s performed. Here are just a few examples of qualities to look for in structure-dependent tasks.

  • The task is precise and repetitive
  • It relies on careful protocols and muscle-memory
  • Your task needs to scale or be set up for automation
  • It follows detailed safety or liability guidelines
  • The task is the first in a long chain of operational dependencies

Though Robert Burns wisely said “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” clear structures nonetheless allow teams and leadership to feel a certain sense of control, focus, and visibility.  In times of crisis, that kind of clarity can be key to calming uncertainty or insecurity, making it a powerful management tool when applied to the right tasks.

Use structure with a task that slipped through the cracks

Every organization has them; inconveniences or inefficiencies too small to rally much attention, but that multiply in impact through repetition. It may be your company’s Cloud nomenclature or the painful back-and-forth involved in getting new employees set up with the right SaaS tools. 

With that task in mind, move on to the following steps.

  1. Map out every single step of the task as it’s currently done into a workflow.
  2. Identify every potential opportunity for improved efficiency.
  3. Test these opportunities and iterate accordingly.
  4. Document and formalize your newly optimized workflow.

The case for flexibility

If structure scores points for a task meticulously done, flexibility makes the case for focusing on the why instead of the how.  This malleability is especially key within the context of innovation and creativity, where the end goal is often your only starting point. You may know that you want users to autonomously onboard your product — the why — but you haven’t yet determined the best way to get there. It’s at this stage that flexibility helps you explore, test, and define the best how. When looking for new ideas or opportunities, getting too attached to an existing answer or process can prove counterproductive. After all, new discoveries often happen at the intersection of serendipity and preparation; unexpected events are the simplest source for innovation.

Relaxing the rigidity of your processes and focusing instead on a clear, effectively communicated end-goal lets people find new, often more efficient paths to your objective. If you ask your team to win a simple 100-meter sprint, they’ll have just a few options for speeding up their time. In contrast,  if you ask them for the quickest way to get from point A to point B — and a straight line isn’t an option — creative minds will come up with all kinds of unexpected shortcuts and combinations. Focusing on the why opens all kinds of doors and avenues, but there are also organizational costs to creativity and flexibility. 

While rigid structures require a hefty initial investment in testing and setting your process, flexible ones demand a continuous effort in careful and thoughtful communication. With so much more room for adaptation and interpretation, there’s also more room for misunderstandings and miscommunication. That’s why it’s crucial to develop a shared language around tools, context and expectations. If you’re looking to experiment with organizational flexibility, here are a few elements to consider and communicate before loosening the reins.

  • What challenge or inefficiency are you trying to address?
  • Whose life are you trying to improve?
  • How will success be measured?
  • What format is expected as output?
  • Can you provide any tangible examples of what you do or don’t want to see?
  • What will your follow up process look like?
  • What tools and resources are at your disposal?
  • How does this fit into your organization’s broader strategy and priorities?
  • What interdependencies exist across teams, subject matter experts, or departments?
  • Who holds ownership over which parts of the project’s success?

Being able to encourage and distribute ownership is one of the biggest perks to opting for flexibility. If you want a team member to feel like you trust their judgment and want them to grow – you can’t lay out every step of the process, but instead have to trust in the clarity of your purpose and the value of their experience.

Channel flexibility with a burst of creativity

While creativity is increasingly valued across many organizations, it can quickly take a back seat to presumed efficiency in times of pressure or uncertainty. Try identifying a task that may have fallen by the wayside but could use a bit of out-of-the-box thinking, perhaps a decade-old slogan, or a lightly neglected email automation. With that task in mind, move on to the following steps.

  1. Map out every step of the current task and the assumption it rests on.
  2. Identify every assumption that could be challenged or re-validated.
  3. Test each assumption and iterate accordingly.
  4. Document and share internally to model initiative, curiosity, and innovation

Find your sweet spot

As is so often the case when dealing with humans, preferences, and ideas, the perfect solution to efficient collaboration and innovation lies in some calibrated combination of both structure and flexibility. And that balance, of course, can only be found through trial, error, and attentive listening. Hopefully, this article will have offered a few useful pointers as to when each approach is at its best, but you’ll need to experiment to truly know what works for your team, your product, or your project.