How structure supports great work.

I get it. Nutting out how a thing will be done, who will make decisions, what the deliverables will be, how much you can spend and how you'll determine if you've delivered what you set out to (and then checking if you did) are boooorrr-ing.

It is - genuinely, there is no judgement here - much more interesting to just do the work. To be in the drama and energy of the think of things. When you're in the business of making the world a better place, it can be hard to move past the desire to just get shit done.

But. Without the structure and discipline piece – the governance of ‘how we do things’ - you set yourself up not necessarily for failure (though it's more likely – and also if you don't know what your deliverable will be or how you'll measure it you won't know if you succeeded or not). But certainly for reduced impact, lost dollars, reduced capacity to influence in your sector, etc. But they are not what I am here to discuss. I am here to talk about the people impact of a lack of structure. I am here to talk about what you lose in terms of engagement, sometimes a reduced capacity to live your values, your ability to structure roles in a useful way and lost opportunities to build your organisations capability, among other things.

I am not talking about shiny frameworks you'll never refer to again; I am talking about making operational governance decisions that the organisation communicates, understands, and follows. Planning and structure provide the groundwork for building a great and innovative culture. It does it in the following ways:

  • It allows people to get on with things and feel like they have agency in their work. How? You might wonder. Surely being told how to do things is disempowering? Well, yes, it can be if every last thing is planned down to the last tack on the wall. But what we're talking about here is providing staff with a framework to make good decisions, act on them themselves, and know when and where to go when they need assistance or have to escalate. Good structures allow people to make decisions within their realm of responsibility. It means they feel safe because they know what is expected of them. It makes it clear what skills they might need to develop or what learning they might need to undertake if they don't understand the entirety of the process, and it means there is a process they and those around them are accountable to.

  • You can ensure the way you work and the outcomes you're seeking to achieve align with your organisation's stated values. A common cultural issue I come across time and time again in the community and health sectors is that the organisation's stated values are not aligned with the way the organisation works in reality. In designing your accountability structures and processes, you can check and re-check throughout your design process whether or not there is alignment. It's worth noting that reduced impact is a primary outcome from a lack of structure, which can significantly alter employees' belief in whether or not the organisation is delivering on its intended outcomes, and their feeling of engagement and pride in their work.

  • You can ensure your roles are cost-effective and designed so that you have a good sense of what capability is needed and the functions you need each person to undertake. Why does this matter? Often in for-purpose organisations, I come across roles where people are being paid (rightly) for their key skill set but spend much of their time on lower-level work. The reasoning for this is often 'well, we don't have much money, everyone just needs to chip in.' And this is always true to an extent, but it is also a false economy. It is disengaging for the employee and not a great use of their time or your money. When you nut it out and determine how much you need of what type of work, you can make workforce decisions that ensure you're getting the most valuable contribution from everyone.

  • You reduce your capacity to build capability. If it's not clear what you're delivering and how you intend to deliver it, it's not clear what skills you need to develop or hire in, what technology you could harness to deliver more for less or how you could increase the quality of the work your teams are doing. You can't discover and harness what 'best practice' means for your business (don't get me started in 'best practice'… just know that emulating the likes of Google et al. is unlikely to be best practice for another one other than Google et al. Best practice for your business is based on the context of your business, its resources, its values, its capability etc.)

  • You reduce your industrial risk by reducing the likelihood of burnout (unclear expectations and a lack of autonomy are a significant stressors) and ensuring you're classifying and therefore paying roles correctly. You reduce the need for reliance on overtime, flex time and so on because you're able to work smarter and more efficiently. You know what what skills your staff need, which ensures you can train them up to work safely.

This doesn't mean you have to have a rigid, hardline approach to structure and governance. If it's broken, fix it. Iterate it. Co-design it with your workforce (and with your clients where it impacts them). Discipline is not a word that is always associated with the kinds of ethos that are common in for-purpose organisations ('We're all a big family, and we'll work it out', 'Clients/patients before all else', 'Just Get It Done', 'Consensus at all times, and so on.) But done thoughtfully, it can support all those approaches. As this excellent article by HBR explains, the most impactful and innovative organisations are flexible, but more than that, they are disciplined.

If you need assistance with designing your operational or accountability structures, please reach out, I'd love to work with you.