The Made-up Theory of Structured Flexibility

There’s an episode of Friends in which the inexplicably rich group of six are playing board games in their inexplicably nice New York apartment. Frustrated by Phoebe’s constant shouting of answers, Monica utters the immortal line ‘Rules help control the fun!’, prompting everyone else to leave, presumably to either a) drink coffee b) play with an illegally imported monkey or c) star in a romantic comedy.

Amongst the sarcastic put-downs, knowing looks, and will-they-won’t-they stories, this line has an unerring amount of truth in it. People love structure and the feeling of control it brings, generally shying away from uncertainty and the potential unknown risks ready to surprise them. There is a down side to structure though, in that it can stifle innovation, make your team hate you, destroy your career, and encourage your customers to leave you and take their friends with them. Not much, then.

But there is an answer! And it’s called, eye-catchingly and paradoxily, ‘Structured Flexibility’. The basic premise is that a loose structure is good, knowing where the start point is, what the end looks like, and the key bits that need to happen within. Outside of those though, people are allowed a certain amount of freedom to do things how they want, as long as those checkpoints are being hit. Frankly, if you have too many rules, people – employees, customers, yourself – will break them, and feel stifled whilst doing it. It’s much better to have a framework with the freedom to operate in, keeping things heading in the right direction and embracing the uncertainty that comes from letting go a little.

And once you see it, you see it everywhere.


Customer Experience

Most people involved in Customer Experience see Journey Mapping as the key to success, working out exactly what a customer is likely to be thinking, feeling, and doing at each step. Once this has been done, the rest is easy – you just build a brilliant customer experience around your understanding of the customer.

But so many companies get it so wrong, and usually because their approach is too structured. Every customer is different in some way, having expectations set from different people, or simply having different preferences to how they want to interact with a company. By designing a journey in minute detail, companies risk forcing their customer to do something they wouldn’t normally do, for example having multiple appointments, or using the phone when they’d rather be online. However good those experiences then are, they’ll be overshadowed by the forced nature of the choice.

Given that, as Daniel Kahneman has shown, the memory of a customer experience is driven by a few key things – how it starts, ends, and the emotional peak & trough moments – it would make more sense to focus on designing those brilliantly and leaving the rest to an element of chance. In fact, given how important humans remain to providing a great experience, allowing a level of flexibility would give your employees the room to use their own ingenuity to react to customers in the most appropriate way possible. You could even go so far as to say that allowing this freedom gives customers the opportunity to create their own superb customer experiences, whilst still ending up in the place you want them to be.



Although ‘micro-management’ strikes fear into most people, a boss who is completely aloof and unapproachable can be even worse. Many things can affect a person’s motivation, with both a clear appreciation for the work you’re doing and a respectable level of autonomy can play a role. However, too often we get obsessed about process over outcome, focussing on the way things are done rather than what comes out the other side. In fact, a Dan Ariely experiment showed that people would rather give more money to a person who had taken twelve hours to fix their computer than someone who did it in five minutes, despite the fact that the latter person was clearly better at his job…

This gets to the heart of the Yahoo-inspired debate on Working From Home (or ‘Working-from-garden as its been recently…). If the task, timelines, and imperatives are clear, it doesn’t really matter where the person is, whether they’re working at 9 in the morning or at night, or if they’re drinking Whisky throughout. Ok, maybe the last one matters a bit (*puts down Famous Grouse*)



First things first: Innovation relies on allowing people the freedom to get stuff wrong. And Second: Stop focussing on your innovation process.

Ultimately, every ‘innovation process’ is broadly the same – it involves having ideas, and then testing those ideas. What distinguishes the good ones from the not-so-good is the flexibility for people to think about things in ways that work for them, ‘allowing themselves the uncomfortable luxury to get things wrong’, and knowing there’s a way for their idea to be heard and considered once formed. Some focus on the idea generation, but not the implementation; others have a clear way of having ideas heard, but expect them to be formed through a formally agreed workshop process. Have a structure, keep it flexible…


‘It doesn’t matter which way you’re going, as long as you’re going somewhere’ to paraphrase the Cat in Alice in Wonderland. Companies change, people change, job roles change, and to focus your career too much on specific job roles could leave you in a difficult position the next time your company restructures. Conversely, whilst focussing on ‘being happy’ is a noble pursuit, the lack of a plan outside of this means you might succumb to your inherent ‘present-focus bias’, doing whatever feels right at the time, but doing something you might regret a few days or weeks later. Know what you’re good at and what you want to develop on, and know what you enjoy and what you want to try. As long as any job you then do ticks those boxes, you’ll be ok.


So, that’s my theory of Structured Flexibility, via Monica from Friends and Alice in Wonderland. Whether it’s customer experience, leading a team, coming up with new ways to win or building a career, the same applies. Know where you are, know where you want to be, know what’s important throughout, and then embrace the uncertainty in everything else. You might even enjoy yourself.


I really hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, I’d love you to subscribe to my blog at to get new thoughts sent to you on an infrequent basis, and find me on twitter @johnJsills.

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