Providing clean structure

In a comment on Good coercion, constraints & focus, Stephen Downes said:

Education needs something like a Hippocratic Oath. Some sort of equivalent to the 'no harm' principle. As in, "First of all, do no harm..."
Coercion can sometimes produce good results. But just as often, and often concurrently, it produces harm. People who are coerced lose their sense of autonomy, lose their sense of self-value, begin to live in fear of consequences.

I totally agree with what Stephen says here. For coercion to be good, it needs to be harmless. This has been a big issue for one the entrepreneurs I'm mentoring. We have wrestled with how to create initial expectations for customers, employees and temps. We've sought to steer away from manipulation, domination and insensitivity. As we discussed this issue in depth, we came to rely on a distinction between "dirty and clean structure".

Dirty structure sends a message that "you don't have a choice here". It sets up controlling the other people as if they are trapped, caged or kept on a short leash. It works against the others as if "buyers are liars", "give an inch and they'll take a mile" or "no act of kindness will go unpunished". Dirty structure puts distance into the relationship as if there is no common ground, mutual respect or future cooperation to cultivate. It delivers an ultimatum: "follow these orders or else". The implicit threat in dirty structure escalates the adversarial context, raises their defenses and produces chronic anxiety.

Clean structure creates the space of the others to make up their own minds. It supports other people's decision-making as if they are intelligent, solving their own problems and capable of meeting their own objectives. It works with others as if "buyers spread good reputations", "caring comes back around" and "people soften when they feel understood". Clean structure establishes common ground, mutual respect and future cooperation. It provides permission to "say no", "take their time" and "do what they think is best". The implicit cooperation in clean structure de-escalates the adversarial context, lowers their defenses and puts their minds at ease.

When clean structure is being provided, people are told things like:

  • This is how this situation is handled routinely and why it's approached this way
  • These are the stages we will go through at first before you will be expected to take charge of this responsibility
  • We have a few questions to help you sort out your options to pick what's best for you
  • Here are the choices you need to make before we begin and some things to consider before you decide
Our experiences with providing clean structure have discovered that it does work. It affects people like we intended and seems to be a form of harmless coercion.

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  1. Lovely post, Tom.

    "Clean structure" empowers individuals to make their own decisions within an existing framework, within a set of guidelines. There is great trust and respect. People are treated like responsible adults. (This reminds me of the ROWE theory that Michele Martin has been writing about lately -- you must have a very clean structure to allow that kind of free-form chaos to reign!)

    "Dirty structure" stems from a basic distrust of others, from a need to control.

    As an employee, I'd clearly rather work in a clean structure.

    Entrepreneurs are often in a fix, aren't they? That sense of control and authority gives them an edge to push ahead and innovate, but it also makes it difficult to work under them!

    How do you change that mindset?

  2. Cammy: Thanks for your insightful comment and question. I'm finding it quite easy to change the mindset of entrepreneurs when there is an ongoing dialogue about "now what happened?".

    When a setback occurs with a customer, employee or temp, I can ask "which situation was it: no structure, dirty structure or clean structure?" When things go well, clean structure makes sense of why things went well. When the turn of events sucks, it's either a lack of structure (initial expectations, framework for cooperation, stages in the relationship, hurdles to clear, etc) or dirty structure.

    I'm not the teacher, I'm just the guide on the side. I'm not getting in the entrepreneur's face, life is. So the terrain is the teacher and is motivating a change in structure. The move from dirty to clean structure happens as the entrepreneur learns from the feedback of "what happens next".

  3. I suppose that the entrepreneurs that engage with you on consulting project s already have that open-mind to change, a willingness. There's a reason that you're there. Life has already taught them a few things....

  4. Yes Cammy. Their willingness to change is like an appetite prior to coming into a restaurant. We don't sit down to eat when we are not the least bit hungry. Entrepreneurs who are not open-minded will become that eventually. Life will first knock gently, then ring the door bell and ultimately knock the door down. Those that have been shattered by setbacks are the most receptive to learning from life after that. They've lost their arrogance in the process of ignoring feedback until their conceit destroys their business, marriage, customer loyalty or team.

  5. Ouch. That must hurt. Every one has to hit their bottom if they're going to be open to recovery...

  6. Yes it does hurt, but then I'm set up by the hurt to be a comfort, ease their pain, explain the big picture and foresee the change. It all works out for the best, even when it gets off to a rough start from the hubris.

  7. Only when the healing happens, Cammy :-)
    When healing occurs, it's the inner resources of the other person come into play.