Structured Flexibility

Structure and flexibility may seem to be at opposite ends of a continuum, and yet for organizations to thrive leaders have to foster both approaches. One provides stability, the other fosters growth, and you want both of those things, right? So how exactly does one go about building both structure and flexibility into your organization? 

For starters, it is good to think about how you are wired as a leader. Do you lean toward structure or flexibility? Not sure? Ask your people. They know. And before you start second-guessing yourself, being pre-disposed to either structure or flexibility is not a bad thing. Both are needed, in different quantities at different times. Knowing your tendencies, however, can help you make sure there is a counterbalance of perspectives on your team.

So if structure and flexibility are at opposite ends of a spectrum, can they both exist in an organization at the same time? Absolutely. Organizations have found lots of ways to do this — through R&D, pilot projects, or departments/divisions focused on innovation while the rest of the organization follows more tightly structured ways of operating. With today’s increasingly volatile environment, however, it has become more and more important to incorporate both approaches into your daily operations. One way of doing this is by implementing a “guard rails” approach.

Guard rails provide boundaries of functioning. Think of it like bowling bumpers you might put in place for small children. There are lots of ways the child can get the ball down the lane, but the bumpers keep the ball from going too far in either direction and ending up in the gutter. In your organization, guard rails may take the form of budgetary constraints, timelines, and/or outcome expectations. Beyond those structural guard rails, however, you can provide maximum flexibility for how the ball gets down the lane. The structure is in the what, the flexibility is in the how. This is where things can get uncomfortable for the structure people . . . just because we have done things a certain way, with successful outcomes, for many years (the how), that doesn’t mean continuing in that vein will help us achieve our goals in the future. The pain point for the flexibility people can be the “width” of the guard rails, which may feel constraining when they are pursuing a totally new approach that may not fit with “old” ways of thinking. 

Based on a leader’s style, he or she may have a natural tendency to sympathize with one end of the continuum or the other. Don’t settle for an either/or. It is possible to find a productive balance. All it takes is a bit of structured flexibility.

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