The need for structure


My recent post on how not to manage geeks has sparked a lot of interest and a lot of great comments.

Right now there’s a very interesting debate going on in the comments about the need for structure in small or large organizations. This debate is great because it goes right to the core of the central dilemma of new leadership and employee empowerment.

Here are some of the key arguments that have come up:

Elling writes: I think you’re attacking structures which you can do without in a small company… In a large company there’s a NEED for the structures…

Jeremy writes: I can anticipate some of this need – the need to account for diverse costs accurately and thoroughly, the need to maintain a standard of output for workers in an organized, fair fashion, etc. – but these play to the weaknesses of large organizations. In other words, large organizations SHOULD be at a disadvantage, and the structures we’re proposing tearing out actually add value only in the sense that MegaCorp is inherently inefficient and out of scale with the market.

Numeeja writes: …there is NEVER a ‘NEED’ for self-serving, ‘personal progression over departmental improvement’ style work places and managers.

Thad writes: The place where I work is managed by good people who don’t want to be bureaucratic jerks, but they can’t grasp one simple concept: they are giving me money in exchange for doing something I love–they don’t have to shackle me with schedules and policies to get me to produce! I will be here working my little heart out because *I want to be*. I try to block out the memos and TPS reports and remind myself that those things aren’t really changing what I get to do here, but damn, every time the red tape is thrust in my face it just deflates me and I don’t even feel like trying to design or build something.

Elling writes: If you have 20 people which you want to pull in the same direction, you NEED to have a manager who’s job it will be to try and ensure that the people in the group DO pull in the same direction… On the other hand, I do realize that there ARE idiot-bastard-managers out there. And I’m not defending them.

Cityzenjane writes: …small tech teams in my experience – when left to their own devices do a GREAT job of pulling in the same direction, getting behind technical strategic priorities that they have been part of developing.

First let me say thanks to all who’ve commented. THIS is what blogging is all about – one post sparking many great contributions. I feel lucky to be hosting this dialogue.

But which is it? Do companies need structure or don’t they? Is less management better than more management? Is management a necessary evil or simply evil? :o)

Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist once said:

The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth

and that’s exactly what I think we’re dealing with here. Whenever I’m faced with one of these either-or questions, I try to loook beyond the immediate choice, to see if there might exist an answer that transcends the dilemma and includes both. Can we have both personal freedom and structure at work?

The answer is not only that it can be done, but that many highly succesful companies are actively doing it. The truth is that there needs to be structure for personal freedom to even be possible. But we are talking a different kind of structure. Where the “old” structures are often opaque, rigid and top-down we can instead create new structures that are the exact opposite but perform the same function of coordinating and streamlining people’s efforts. These new structures are transparent, dynamic and participatory.

Southwest AirlinesCompanies that have done this include business school case classics like Semco, Oticon, Southwest Airlines and GE Aviation. None of them are doing too shabby (understatement alert), and people are really happy at work there. Herb Kelleher, ex-CEO of Southwest, was once asked how he could maintain control when his employees had so much freedom. His answer is classic:

Control? Never had it. Don’t want it.

I think we can move forward most efficiently if we shift away from choosing between freedom and structure, and work from the assimption that it’s about choosing both and thus creating a new kind of structure.

Let me hit you with one last Niels Bohr quote (Yes I’m a fan, dammit):

How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.

9 thoughts on “The need for structure”

  1. Very good article. I would like to add that it’s not really the size of the company that makes, or in the case of what some suggest, breaks a good work environment, but rather the management. I recently changed jobs from a very small company to a rather large one who has a mouse for a logo. The small company was very poorly ran, and all creativity was destroyed by the over-management style that was the culture there. At the mouse company, though – and I only speak of my particular department and group – things are totally different. There is much more “structure” as to job roles and responsibilities – a very good thing in my opinion – , but we are left to our own creativity in performing our jobs. It’s more of a management style of “guidance” than of forced labor. And even though this is a megalo-corp, everyone I work with is very happy being here, including myself.

    I don’t think that it’s so much whether structure is bad or not, but how that structure is defined and implemented. Management and structure should be tools that create a process whereby an ultimate goal is able to be achieved, but all too often this is not the case. Structure and freedom are not bi-polar, but, as put forth in this article, related. Without structure there would be no freedom, only anarchy.

  2. Thanks for your story Daniel, and for underlining the point that this is not about big vs. small companies or structure vs. freedom.

    I would like to ask you: Why do things work as well as they do in your department? Is it a certain manager, a certain way of doing things? What could other companies learn?

    Also: What does it do for you and your colleagues to be in this environment?

  3. I work at a relatively small company where we have two main teams. One team, heavy on structure, is running smoothly with happy employees. The other team, heavy on freedom, is barely running at all.

    What is the difference? It is not so much a question of freedom v. structure at a project level, but of freedom v. structure at a role level.

    As a tech lead on the “good” team, I have the responsibility to determine architecture and assign tasks. I also have the freedom to discuss with the project manager scheduling issues that are not technically part of my role. As a tech lead, I could assign a task and say “do it”, but I do not. I allow developers the freedom to discuss the design with me, which in trun, allows them to grow and ‘buy-in’ to the project.

    On the “bad” team, people do as they please. Tasks are not scheduled and schedules are not tracked. If an overrun happens, it must have been an act of God, but never poor management. And so it goes. Developers handle requirements analysis, design, code, and test: stovepipe to a ‘tee’.

    I believe a certain amount of structure is required. Documentation needs to be written and schedules need to be kept. Developers do not, traditionally, enjoy documentation, but it is a necessary evil for ensuring continuity and preventing the “hit by a bus” syndrome.

    Structure and freedom are not mutually exclusive. Structure at a management level can produce freedom at the developer level. Is there a cost? Yes, nothing is for free. Do the benefits outweigh the cost? I believe they do.

  4. I could probably write an article on this subject myself, but I’ll try to keep it brief. ;)

    It’s not so much a specific manager as much as it is the entire philosophy. We have very clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Likewise, we are also provided the matrix with which to measure our success on any given task. Beyond this, though, we are left to our own devices to figure out how best to achieve those goals. So we have the structure of our tasks, but we are given the freeedom to achieve them in the way that best suites our own style. In my opinion, this breeds the opportunity for personal pride in one’s own work, and thus lending itself to each individual taking ownership of whatever is being done.

    Added to this is recognition. This is a HUGE part of what can make or break a work environment. Management can “talk” all day long about how it is the people who make the company, but if they never actually show it then what good is it? I also think that this term is misunderstood, too. All too often we equate “recognition” with “reward”, and that simply doesn’t have to be the case. People know when something is just lip service, and when it is really heart felt, and we all want to know that what we are doing is appreciated.

    Finally, management needs to provide the avenue for their employees to succeed. Not simply financially, but in every aspect of their jobs. We are encouraged to continually innovate our way of doing things, and we all work together to test the ideas that are put forth. Providing success can be as simple as listening to an idea from someone who is brand new and never worked in that environment before instead of squashing it. In this way, a fresh approach to a challenge is put forth, and that person now feels like a part of the team.

    What this means to my particular environment is that everyone feels as though they have something to contribute to any given project, which in turn fosters a very positive work experience.

  5. Mark: That’s a great example of the benefits of structure and the problems with too little structure.

    Some of the debate about new leadership and employee empowerment has been about whether management is good or bad, whether we should manage less or more. And as you write structure and freedom are not mutually exclusive, quite the contrary.

    Also I like your aproacjh of providing is structure over which employees have influence, rather than trying to control everything.

    My favorite example of good structure is eXtreme Programming, which, paradoxical as it may seem, creates more structure AND more freedom than other methodologies.

    I also like it because it’s the only methodology that has mad it a goal to make software development fun!

  6. Daniel: It sounds like your workplace gets it! Clear goals, freedom to find your own path to the goal, clear roles and (very important) mutually agreed definitions of when goals have been achieved.

    I also really like your separation of recognition and reward. Recognition may be the simplest. easiest thing to do. It takes no time and costs no money. And yet I meet many, many employees who feel that they’re consistently being undervalued.

  7. I’m having trouble at school with “friends”. Please give me advice on how to deal with it? I got bitched out by Kylie,a girl in my class, through the power of the telephone! She hung up on me when I tried to explain why I was mad but she hung up. What do I DO?!

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