How Much Structure Do You Need?

How much structure do you need? How much structure do you need, for example, to do your job effectively? How much to learn at your best? How much to think well?

For many people, approaches like the Liberating Structures provide a very effective way of structuring meetings and other group events, so that everyone is heard.  Other people find them maddening: they report feeling that the event is too un-structured! When familiar, comforting features such as a chairman and agenda are missing, they lose their bearings and find it difficult to contribute.

scaffoldingIn their need for structure, as with pretty much everything else, people vary wildly. Some demand simple structures, some enjoy complicated systems, others are happy without any obvious structure, or enjoy seeing the patterns in complexity.

This is a very live issue for me in relation to teaching Clean Language, and using it to work with groups.

In the past I’ve tended to take the view that Clean Language was about creating space for an individual client. As a result, when I taught it, I avoided the traditional format of “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you’ve told them”.

If possible, I’d prefer not to “tell them” anything – I don’t want to be a “presenter” or “lecturer”. I’ve regarded the ideal as what James Lawley reportedly once described as “an acquiring”, where students reach their own conclusions from their own experiences and reflection.

And in team-building workshops, I’ve silently apologised to the Gods of Clean for falling short of Caitlin Walker’s stated ideal of walking into a room full of new people and starting with, “What do you need to know before we start?”

But while that approach emphasises the freedom, openness and emergence of Clean, it misses the fact that Clean Language creates a structured space for the client to explore their thinking. That’s what the Clean Language Questions are for. They direct attention in specific ways, which gives structure and boundaries to the exploration.

Of course, Clean Language isn’t a step-by-step, painting-by-numbers process, either. It’s designed to be responsive to the situation: to the client’s responses, to shifts in the relationship between client and coach, and to events in the world. That’s why it works well with complexity: it’s a probe-sense-respond model (see Cynefin).

But there are all kinds of possibilities in between painting by numbers and a completely blank sheet of paper.  And of course, neither James nor Caitlin claim to offer a content-free “acquiring”: when even the temperature of the meeting room can have a profound effect on a group, that’s not only unrealistic, it’s impossible.

Not only that, but there are no Gods of Clean, any more than there’s a Clean Police.

So, with a new group last week I experimented with asking directly, “How much structure would you like in our sessions?” What do you reckon?

3 thoughts on “How Much Structure Do You Need?”

  1. Andrea Chiou

    Great post Judy!

    This is timely as I am revamping my slides for a workshop I’ll give next week here locally, and then again at Lean Agile Scotland in October. You precisely pinpointed what is hard about the preparation: I don’t know who will show up and what their needs or structure will be until the event. I seem to be fashioning the slides (damn that they are linear) to have enough up front content to provide /some/ structure and context, and will focus soon after to what’s in the room with an some facilitated questions, clean style. My feedback from workshops that are introductory in nature is such a melange of: its cool, its confusing, I needed more context, I can see how this is useful, I needed an overview of the ‘methodology’, the practice is cool, but there wasn’t enough time, etc. Truth: workshops like mine are tasters and everyone has different tastebuds, metaphorically speaking. And I am ok with the uncertainty… no police gods out there… and then I send those who want dessert to the various options for further learning 🙂

  2. Pirjo Mikkola

    A great piece to round up Last Friday’s course. Your post caught me while surfing round Liberating Structures. So inspiring to plunge into CL with you.

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