The paradox of structure in business

Several decades ago, there was a wide belief that school playgrounds should not have fences because they would inhibit children’s creative play and sense of freedom.

Someone conducted an experiment to prove this*. But surprisingly, the opposite was true.

In this experiment, there were two playgrounds – one of these had a fence around it and the other one did not.

When a group of children were let into the fenceless playground, the children used a limited space and stuck together right in the center of the playground. Yet, when they were let into the fenced playground, the children used the entire space.

In this example, the physical structure paradoxically created a sense of freedom.

Photo by zendt66

Photo by Zendt66

This is the same in business too.

I recently took part in a systems thinking workshop.

As part of this workshop, we were given a role. We were either ‘tops’, ‘middles’, ‘bottoms’ or ‘customers’ – representing different stakeholders of an organisation.

In teams (tops, middles, bottoms) we were given a brief, a day (represented by 12 minutes) and an area of the room.

What was really interesting was, as the ‘day’ played out, most of the ‘bottoms’ were becoming frustrated because of the lack of direction from the ‘middles’ and ‘tops’. They hadn’t been given enough boundaries and this translated into a lack of understanding and knowledge to get on with the task in hand.

What was interesting was that not all of the ‘bottoms’ felt like this and some of them had thrived from the freedom they felt to get on with things in their own way and style.

This is because people have different creative styles.

The key, for any leader, is to create ‘gates’ in structures, to allow people to choose the structure that is right for them.

This can mean making the physical and emotional structures more flexible. It’s no coincidence that most creative agencies have open offices, lots of big whiteboards and encourage flexible working hours.

But there’s also something a bit deeper at stake here. It’s about giving people a purpose to work towards and a set of values to work by, and letting them do the rest, in their way.

*Source: Coursera – Creativity, Innovation and Change


Happiness at work

One of the things less discussed in business is happiness.

We’re very fond of happiness here at NM Towers – we measure it with tennis balls & buckets every day, we talk about it at the beginning of every meeting &, more importantly, we act on it when we’re not happy.

We recognise that happiness is the key to a passionate and motivated workforce.

That’s why, as part of our annual Meaning Conference this year, we’ve invited good friend & Chief Happiness Officer (my favourite job title of all time!), Alexander Kjerulf, to facilitate a workshop – to help others create a happier and more productive workplace.

Here’s Alexander at last year’s conference on the subject, which got us all off our seats:

Check it out or sign up:

A metaphor for business

In the 18th century, philosopher and social theorist, Jeremy Bantham, designed a new type of building called the Panopticon.

The Panopticon was a concept which would allow someone to observe (opticon) all (pan) of an institution without others being able to see whether they were being watched or not.


Bentham described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind”.

Bentham was attracted to this idea for one main reason: knowledge = power.

Many people are, or have been, afraid of giving up their knowledge, of sharing it widely . Instead, we’ve seen how knowledge has become restricted within certain groups of people in an attempt to maintain powerful positions in society. Women are a good example of such a group throughout history. Even today women currently hold just 4.2% of FTSE 500 CEO positions.

It’s organisations that deploy these ‘panoptic structures’ that are getting it wrong and are losing trust their key stakeholders. These organisations are failing because essentially they’re restricting knowledge and operating in silos.

But what if the Panoptican was used as a force for good, rather than evil?

What if Bentham’s vision was about sharing power?

What if everyone was encouraged to climb the central tower to grasp the whole picture?