You might have to be a certain age to notice this, but if you are, you definitely will: The world has become far less structured than it used to be. And while that creates a lot of opportunities for entrepreneurs, it comes with some challenging implications as well.
For the most part, structure has broken down because people like to be free from it. They like being able to work wherever and whenever they want. They like being able to educate their kids from anywhere. They like being able to watch their TV show and their movies on demand in their own environment.
And they like being able to access information at a moment’s notice wherever they are, and whatever they’re doing.
It’s probably hard for a person under 35 to relate to this, but it wasn’t that long ago when this complete lack of structure was unthinkable.
From the end of World War II through the mid-1990s, ours was a very structured society. Indeed, we built these structures in order to win the war. It was one of the greatest achievements in the history of our society. And once the war was won and the soldiers came home, they blended right in and Americans worked within that structure to produce astonishing things over the course of five decades.
The structural norms didn’t change for a long time. We had our three TV networks. We had our local public schools. We had our home phone numbers and our six or seven local radio stations, and knew we could get local news at 6 and national news at 6:30.
This was life in America for multiple generations, and the corporate world had its own familiar structure, with the 8-to-5 work day and the company hierarchy. A lot of this was because there was really no other way to do it. But it was efficient and productive and most people learned to work within it pretty effectively.
Yet those structures, which made us so productive and efficient, arguably destroyed themselves. They did it by creating the technologies that rendered the old structures unnecessary. We wouldn’t have remote workers and on-demand video and real-time social media if the old structure hadn’t invented the technologies that make them all possible.
Now that they’re possible, we want all the unstructured freedom this new world can give us, and that’s especially true of younger people – who have little or no memory of the old structured system and no concept of why they would want any part of it.
In a way, you can’t blame them. Who wouldn’t love the idea of making your own rules, your own hours and your own methods of working? Who wouldn’t want to enjoy the kind of freedom their parents and grandparents never even dreamed of?
But there are downsides to the loss of structure, especially for young people, but also for businesses in general.
Sometimes it’s better for the human brain to operate within structure. There are times and places and circumstances in which you can’t just hope you’re doing the right thing. Structure fills in those gaps.
That’s especially true when it comes to process. Manufacturers know this well, although they’re not the only ones: Documented processes are crucial to achieving consistent high-level performance. Corporations invest millions into training their people to learn their documented processes because it’s essential to quality control.
It’s easy to understand why structure is important on a shop floor, but it’s a mistake to dismiss it in other business settings – even if we’re talking about a small professional services firm.
Each business leader has to decide which elements of the business need structure and which ones can allow more flexibility. Maybe you want to be very firm about an 8-to-5 workday because your team dynamic depends on it. Maybe you can be a lot more flexible about how you manage things like vacation time, expense reimbursements and employee reviews.
But if you’re determined to always have everything unstructured, you’re putting yourself at risk for a lot of problems.
For one thing, not everything is your decision. The IRS imposes some pretty inflexible requirements for how you do your accounting. That’s structure imposed by Washington D.C., and they don’t care that your 20-something employees like things loose. The same is true of OSHA and safety regulations.
Structure gives definition to things. It makes it possible for you to measure progress toward goals. It also makes it possible for you to quantify goals and identify problems. Without it, you can try to get a feel for how you’re doing, but you never really know for sure.
And without structure to guide your work process, your people can never really be sure if they’re doing what they should be doing, or how well they’re doing it.
Structure is also useful for younger workers for another reason: Learning to discipline oneself is usually a long-term endeavor, and structure helps to define the discipline that’s necessary. Many young people have dreams of running their own businesses. If they have no familiarity with the basic structure of a business, they won’t have any idea what they need to build.
Granted, that young person may want to run a very unconventional business, with very loose operations that give a lot of autonomy to workers. I have no problem with anyone wanting to try that. But without understanding more conventional business structure as a baseline, how do you know how to apply the variations to make your unconventional idea work?
Learning to work within a structured environment teaches young people a lot about business, and a lot about themselves. It may also inspire ideas for how they can do things better than the norm, and I applaud that. But until you’ve functioned within such a structure, you’re just guessing at what you think you might want to do.
Time marches on, and the technology innovations we’ve developed in the past 30 years have made it possible for us to do astonishing things. There’s no reason the structure of business shouldn’t evolve to take full advantage of these things. I am not in any way suggesting we should go back to the way we did things in 1945, or even in 1995.
But structure helps people and organizations succeed in ways you often don’t appreciate until you make the mistake of trying to do business without it. No matter how technology and culture changes, we will always need structure to help make sense of it all.
Written by: Wade Wyant
Red Wagon Advisors