In my last post, I talked about the narrow realm between order and chaos where organizational nimbleness can be fostered. The zone where regulation and unruliness intersect offers the greatest possibility for people and organizations adapting to changing circumstances. Structured flexibility is a framework for exploiting this area where predictability and instability can be integrated; it is a mechanism designed to help people adhere to, as well as officially break from, sanctioned procedures.
The sequence of the two words is important. If an organization applied “flexible structure,” it would be placing its priority on “order” while leaving room for creativity and spontaneity when possible. Companies pursuing structured flexibility are, instead, using a degree of rigor to modify the primary emphasis they are placing on “adjustability.” They seek pliability for their people, but they want it pursued in a manageable fashion. They believe the creativity and dexterity they desire can be best attained in a state of organized flux.
It’s true that either flexible structure or structured flexibility is a welcome alternative to a rigidly compliant-based approach to using change methodologies. That said, they do not both have an equal impact on change success. The more dexterous an operation is, the more likely it is that it uses structure in support of its primary value—agility. Instead of being versatile in their conservatism, people in nimble settings are conscientious with their ingenuity…careful not to lose control as they try to be as responsive as possible to shifting conditions and circumstances.
Structured flexibility tries to capitalize on the positive attributes of both ends of the order/chaos continuum by instructing people along these lines:
“We have gone to a great deal of trouble to determine the best change methodology to follow while implementing our portfolio of initiatives. It may not be perfect, but it is how we have decided to proceed. In this respect, please do what it calls for in the manner we have outlined, unless you face an exception that the guidance appears not to take into account. If this occurs, and there is no time to get any advice, then use your best judgment, prepare to review what happened and why, and help us all learn from the experience.
If you take an action that omits or significantly modifies some key guidelines, you’ll need to explain why you did what you did, and be open to one of four responses:
As you can see, sometimes not conforming to the guidance you were given will result in “Don’t do that again.” Other times, you’ll hear, “Great job. You’ve opened our eyes to a new way of approaching things.” It’s important you understand that, regardless of the outcome of any one situation, we always want you to remain balanced between adherence and creativity. This translates into a simple axiom: Generally speaking, take advantage of past lessons learned by following the course of action provided and be prepared to depart from that guidance as circumstances require.
The graphic below outlines the basic flow of how the process unfolds. You can download a PDF of the graphic here.
A Summary of Structured Flexibility
Sponsors and agents who try to impose too much guidance on people using an implementation methodology are usually afraid that they will exercise bad judgment and therefore don’t allow the kind of fluidity that occurs with structured flexibility. What they can’t grasp are the following extremes:
Structured flexibility means two things:
Applying structured flexibility means the organization does not always stay within predictable limits, but it also doesn’t stray very far from established guidelines before there is an opportunity to assess things and take corrective action if needed.
When people opt out and covertly circumvent change-related guidance, the sponsors’ response should be swift and unequivocal. Under no circumstances, however, should people feel in any way punished for departing from guidelines when it is done as described here. To the contrary, they should not only have confidence that it is acceptable to go outside the system when it is done appropriately, they should believe that doing so is an obligation they have to their boss, the change, and the organization.
For this to be the case, people must be treated as heroes when they break from sanctioned guidelines using structured flexibility. Also, regardless of whether permission was granted or the person acted independently and received feedback later, it is critical that whatever happens is translated into learnings that result in either a formal modification of the guidance or clear reasons why the standard approach should prevail.
Order and Chaos
Categories: Structured Flexibility
Too little liberty brings stagnation and too much brings chaos. —Bertrand Russell
In an earlier series, I shared some thoughts on the importance of both the art and science of our craft. As professional change facilitators, we must rely on both to give clients what was promised. Each must be integrated and balanced with the other, yet most sponsors are more attracted to the science aspect. That is, they consider methodology and deliverables more tangible and therefore easier to grasp and justify investing in. Don’t get me wrong—they want us to display the “art,” side of our craft, too, but they are generally drawn much more to the part of what we do that they can see and more easily understand.
Sometimes sponsors want to impose methodology concepts and tools on the organization, rather than give guidance about how and when to use them (as well as give a little leeway about their actual deployment). Practitioners, too, can become so enamored with the mechanisms we provide that we give the impression that it’s “the only way.”
It’s rarely in a client’s best interest for the people applying implementation methodologies to simply comply with their use. To the layman, though, such a “forced hand” approach might seem best. (“Things would be great if we could just get our people to consistently follow the guidance we’ve given them.”) If we think we have the best approach to implementing change, why not just enforce its intended use? Here’s my opinion: Methodologies are never an impeccable fit for every situation they are applied to. Even if they could be close to perfect, people still need breathing room to tailor the concepts, techniques, and processes to address the unique variables in their situations.
We need a way to provide the structure and discipline necessary to capitalize on a solid change methodology, while also giving people the room to localize it to their particular circumstances.
Where Order Meets Chaos
Order and chaos both exist during periods of high turbulence. Leaders shouldn’t think of them as mutually exclusive, though. Instead, they should be seen as two interdependent ends of a single continuum, a scale we can slide up and down to harvest the benefits of both perspectives.
When applying a sound change methodology, we need the ability to draw on the predictability associated with order while accessing the elasticity that comes with chaos.
Somewhere between these two points of reference—order and chaos—is a narrow realm we can use to foster organizational nimbleness.* The zone where regulation and unruliness intersect offers the greatest possibility for people and organizations to adapt to shifting circumstances. We can take advantage of this area by applying structured flexibility—a framework designed to help people adhere to, as well as officially break from, sanctioned procedures. The goal of structured flexibility is to allow people to take advantage of the collective experience and brainpower of those who came before by staying within the guidelines provided, but at the same time, being free to adjust as unexpected circumstances arise.
How Much “Latitude” Should People Have?
There are two prevalent mindsets related to giving direction during the execution of major organizational change.
1. People should adhere rigidly to the directions they are given, regardless of what occurs. “It’s not acceptable to do anything other than what the established implementation process calls for. Under no circumstances should you deviate from the standard.”
2. People should be given some guidance, but mostly left to work through unfamiliar situations as they see fit. “Change results are all that count. How you go about implementation is your call.”
Rigid rules and evolving organizations don’t mix. At some point, people have to choose between pursuing what they believe will work best or following the guidance they were given. On the other hand, leaving people to reinvent the wheel when encountering unanticipated circumstances is inefficient, considering they could take advantage of lessons learned from previous efforts.
Neither approach provides a practical way to learn and pass on to others how an implementation methodology can work best. More to the point, this is the kind of environment that sets people up to fail. When people receive too much or too little direction, they can’t find the balance of consistency and innovation required for local conditions. The failure to provide enough implementation guidance has its own set of issues, but I want to focus here on the ramifications of being overly prescriptive about how a change methodology is to be used.
When people are given what they believe is too little autonomy, they often revert to evading and outwitting the officially sanctioned restrictions. They devise a range of covert ways to circumvent what they have been asked to do. Despite guidance to the contrary, they continue to pursue whatever is off-limits, or they simply fail to do what they were asked to do.
In these kinds of situations, skillful “opting out” is considered essential for political survival (maintaining favor with the boss or even keeping one’s job) and thus it’s often perfected by those who have learned to endure, if not thrive, in such environments. Of course, these people know that they have to do this without drawing attention to themselves, so the stealth nature of opting out is at the heart of its effectiveness. In many cases, the “rebelliousness” involved is so hidden that even those doing it don’t consciously think of it as such. They think of themselves as merely “doing the right thing” to get the change implemented. The idea of being “saboteurs” of management’s mandates would never occur to them.
The energy that goes into the various ways people elude the rules, not to mention the time devoted to bragging about such accomplishments to their peers, usually adds up to a significant “unintended investment” for the organization. In addition, there is the “non-productive penalty” that results when change-related guidelines (assuming they were good ones) are ignored or watered down to the point of being ineffectual. Problems go unresolved and opportunities are left unexploited. The combination of these unintended and non-productive expenditures can add up to a huge hidden implementation cost.
The alternative is to invest in structured flexibility. Rather than driving dissenters underground, the goal becomes to create allies of those who want to “fight the system” by helping them introduce modifications to the established way of doing things. Structured flexibility invites those with innovative solutions who want to stray from the guidance they are given into a process that promotes elasticity while also protecting what has been learned from previous experience.
Somewhere between the two extremes of too much or too little guidance is the more integrated perspective of structured flexibility. Here the message is, “Most of the time, you should follow established guidelines. If you feel a need to deviate, there is a specific way of doing it.”
Next, I’ll talk about a process for determining how much structure and flexibility are needed in a particular situation.
* My next series is devoted entirely to this topic.