Structure brings flexibility

Many of us are familiar with the pressure that comes when you are working with complexity. There is often a pressing problem at hand that has multiple root causes and is inhabited by multiple stakeholders. The issues are difficult to frame with little agreement on the scope of the problem. There is lots of uncertainty and disagreement around the underlying data and no obvious agreed path forward.  Leaders are very anxious about the situation and there is a tangible sense of needing to get something done.

When faced with this pressure it is understandable that people feel they have to act, make decisions and find solutions fast. The irony is that the rush to make decisions and identify solutions can intensify the pressure with undesirable consequences. The following quote by Dr Glen Robertshaw who specialises in environmental decision-making illustrates this well.

 “Trying to steam-roll through the decision-making process only succeeds in putting people’s backs up, creates political      resistance and makes the process take even longer.”

The alternative is to nest the collaborative action into a structure that specifies at a high level the steps everyone will take as they work together. The Power of Co is one such structure that operates at a meta level. It provides guidance on HOW people can interact but doesn’t specify the content of the interaction. Such a deliberative process enables stakeholders both action and reflection.

Sandra Janoff and Marvin Weisbord of the Future Search Network have an entire chapter in their latest book, Lead more control less. 8 advanced leadership skills that overturn convention devoted to controlling structure and not people. They say that with the right structures, people will learn more, teach one another and exercise a level of control you cannot impose. They go on to say that you should

                    “Control what is controllable”

This is such a relevant quote, as we know that when you work with complexity you have to use emergent practice. There is no way of knowing how all the variables in a complex situation are going to play out so you have to identify those variables you can control.

In my experience collaboration that is undertaken within an overarching structure can be a liberating experience. Everyone is given permission to listen and learn before acting. People know that it is better to not decide too soon. This lowers defensive positions that come from protecting your preferred solution and removes much of the stress of having to fix the problem.

Mira Kirvesmaki and Rasmus from the Mirum Lean Innovation Lab in Copenhagen believe that:

“The key to fostering innovation is getting the right balance between structure and flexibility.”


I support this belief and suggest that having a well understood and agreed structure in place enables the collaborators to be flexible with how they get to solutions.

If you are feeling undue stress – check what structure you and your collaborators have co-designed for your collaborative process. Is the structure clear and does it have commitment? Making changes to the collaborative structure can pave the way to innovative collaborative practice.

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