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.

The Courage to Continue

Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.” Now, it is easy for wordsmiths like me to tout such pithy phrases during challenging times, but when you tease out Churchill’s words they are instructive to all of us who would hope to lead.

Success is not final. So celebrate it NOW. Don’t wait for the big giant wins. Acknowledge the daily steps forward — both yours and those of the people you lead. You can hold people accountable for reaching their goals while still encouraging and thanking them, along the way. What “mini-celebration” is in order today? Ice cream for the team . . . a written thank you note . . . a heartfelt compliment for someone’s novel solution to a unique challenge.

Far too often, we don’t even take time to celebrate the big wins, much less the small steps forward. Success in one area merely becomes a blip on the screen toward the next goal. Maybe we think we’ll come back and celebrate it once we complete the entire project. Except we won’t. Even when it feels like we have reached the peak, there will always be other mountains to climb. Success is not final — so give yourself and your people permission to take a moment to smile, to pat each other on the back and and acknowledge your good work . . today. Success is not a destination. It is a feeling generated by the leader each step of the way.

Failure is not fatal. Yes, it may feel like it at the moment. And the more you cared about the project at hand, the worse it hurts when you come up short. So give yourself a moment to catch your breath and feel the pain of the situation (notice I said a moment, not a month), honestly ask yourself what you learned from the experience, and then dust yourself off and take a step. Will people trust you, will they believe you know what you are doing after you just failed? That all depends. Have you built a culture that recognizes that experimentation and making adjustments are part of the process? Can you acknowledge where you came up short and ask others to help you find a different solution? Are you overwhelmed by what you can’t control, or are you able to identify what you can control and start planning from there? You have the power to decide if failure is fatal, or serves as a launchpad to future success.

It is the courage to continue that counts. Or to use another Churchill quote, “When you’re going through hell keep going.” Leadership is hard. There are days when the successes are fleeting and the weight of failure feels unbearable. Take a step. It doesn’t have to be huge or especially noteworthy, but move. Keep going. Failure infects the stagnant. So don’t be stagnant. Take a step. Consider it an act of rebellion if that helps . . . a refusal to let failure win. 

Lots of people can follow a clearly identified path. But when those best laid plans go awry? That’s when you need a leader . . . not a perfect one who has never failed . . . simply with the courage to continue.

Tend the Forest

Forest scene; Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash
Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

You can’t see the forest for the trees.

It’s one of those phrases that we all have heard, and yet we fail to heed its warning time and again. We spend so much time addressing the crisis du jour, our ever-growing to-do list, today’s opportunity or our competitors most recent actions that we lose sight of the big picture . . . the forest . . . if we were ever really clear on the big picture in the first place. 

Here’s the thing. Individual trees can get struck by lightning. A bigger tree might block the sun and so the one in its shadow may never grow to its full potential. Or you plant a seed with great confidence, only to be disappointed that it doesn’t seem to take root like you expected. If your primary focus is on the tree, such set-backs can send you into a tailspin, scurrying around to respond to this crisis or that. 

When you step back and focus on the forest, however, you recognize that not every tree will be a majestic oak, and that’s okay. You don’t have to turn yourself inside out for every project as long as you are keeping your eye on the well-being of the whole. You can acknowledge that some seeds germinate at a slower pace — or maybe not at all, but it is still worth the effort to plant them.

Keeping your focus on the forest doesn’t eliminate the day-to-day challenges of leading, but it does help keep them in context so you can focus on the end game. From a big picture perspective, it is easier to recognize that some of your best laid plans may not work out the way you had hoped, but one particular “tree” is simply that . . . one tree in a whole forest of pathways and opportunities. 

The biggest challenge comes when you have not clearly defined the forest. What are the three or four big goals you are working toward? Not 57 . . . that’s tree counting. You have to push past seeing every project — every tree — as an end unto itself. Define the forest.  Arriving at that kind of focus is harder than you think. But when you get there, it is much easier to step back and find a different path to your destination when things don’t go as you had hoped. And they won’t. 

If you are having one of those weeks where you feel like you are simply running from tree to tree, stop. Take a deep breath. And tend the forest.

Architects and Builders

Architect and builder discussing at construction site.If you have ever built a house, you may have noticed that the architect and the builder are usually not the same person. While it is true that occasionally these two roles are carried out by a single individual, in most cases people specialize in . . . naturally gravitate toward . . . one set of skills or the other. The same is true of leaders. Steve Graves calls these two types of leaders entrepreneurial and enterprise leaders.

Entrepreneurial leaders are your innovators, your start-up specialists, your architects. These leaders are always asking “what if” and “what about”. They are passionate, have a sense of urgency, are continually searching for new opportunities and challenging the status quo. According to Graves, “Entrepreneurial leaders disrupt, motivate, pivot, run fast, and break things.” Every organization needs entrepreneurial leaders.

Enterprise leaders, your builders, figure out how to make the idea on paper actually happen. They focus their energy on coordinating systems, processes, and people for maximum impact. They plan for and respond to the complex realities of a project and determine how to construct something that is sustainable over time. They tend to be more measured and methodical, sticking with something until every detail is addressed. Every organization needs enterprise leaders.

Although architects and builders may not always see eye to eye, if you are going to construct something that has a lasting impact, you need both sets of skills — in varying amounts at different stages of the building process. The creative tension between the two perspectives provides the opportunity for better results than either could achieve alone. Like so much of leadership, it is all about the balance — leaning a bit more in one direction at a particular point in time, and then shifting back toward the other end of the continuum as circumstances change.

The trick is to make sure you have individuals with both sets of skills on your “construction team.” If you naturally skew toward one end of the continuum (and as a result tend to place more value on that set of skills), it is easy to surround yourself with like-minded people. That might make for a smoother process, but not likely a better result. It is the range of perspectives that come from both entrepreneurial and enterprise leaders that yield the greatest impact.

Whether you are trying to build a house or a solid future for your organization, you need both architects and builders on the team.