Structure and Discipline: An Important Leadership Tool

By: Traci Berliner

It is not uncommon to hear the words, "I don't want to create too much structure or process because it is going to get in the way of what makes us successful…our creativity." Many believe eliminating (or even never instituting) any formal processes helps to increase flexibility, creativity, and responsiveness—all things that most organizations are striving for given today's competitive marketplace! While an absolutely understandable and somewhat intuitive perception, especially from leaders in a small and growing organization, it is mindset that can get in the way of growth and creativity. Structure and discipline are not the same thing as bureaucracy. It is bureaucracy that hinders growth whereas discipline has the opposite effect—it unleashes the creativity and nimbleness that is required for growth.

Let's be clear: creating structure and discipline does not mean creating rigid rules, red tape, or impermeable boxes that people must operate within. Rather, it is about providing the overarching frameworks and boundaries that provide employees with the freedom to make decisions and take action. Without this, the work environment will likely be experienced as extremely chaotic, often described as "the wild west" by those inside. It is this type of unbridled, frenetic energy that often results in employees feeling like they are spinning their wheels—or worse, coping with exhaustion and burnout. Creating some structure helps to turn the chaos into an energizing and productive environment (controlled chaos). It provides the roadmap and guideposts for how things are expected to get done, enhances efficiency by providing best-practice approaches (e.g., strategic planning), and drives consistency around things that are viewed as core to the business (e.g., client service, leadership behavior/expectations). In a nutshell, it provides the foundation for repeatable performance and creates the white space needed to be creative, explore opportunities, and grow the business.

So, if you think about structure and disciplined systems as creating a framework and boundaries, then the next step is to identify where they might be beneficial. Of course, they help with things like creating a budget or creating purchase orders, but there are many other places where they can be invaluable. Here are just a few:

Clarifying behavioral expectations. Tools like leadership profiles and/or competencies models convey expectations at various levels within an organization. Articulating and providing a framework can help to ensure alignment and create the foundation for recruiting, onboarding, and promoting talent. It sets the tone for what is expected and can even help to transform the culture.

Leveraging a best-practice (or at least a good-practice) approach for routine management practices. Strategic planning, goal setting, and measuring progress help translate a vision into action. Without disciplined processes, these things either go undone, are sporadic (and usually feel like fire drills), or are subject to the creation of new approaches and tools by multiple people across varying functions. Having and utilizing a common framework and disciplined process is not only more efficient, it helps to create a steady rhythm that calms the chaos.

Ensuring a regular communication cadence. Even something like communications can benefit from have a disciplined process. For leaders, having a year-long calendar that identifies the weekly, monthly, and quarterly meetings helps to ensure that the right types of conversations are occurring with the right cadence so that critical information and emerging patterns are surfacing, allowing the organization to pivot to today's changing marketplace.

It is the leader's role to establish the direction and create the structure and disciplined systems required for success. Structure does not mean bureaucracy. Far from it. Rather, structure creates the freedom to move with agility within a clear framework. It provides the guardrails for empowering employees to act. It helps to free up time and energy and creates the white space for the creativity that fuels growth!


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