In 2009 I was at a Summer Leadership Intensive from the Genuine Contact Program. The facilitator, Birgitt Williams, invited the group to reflect on this question: “How much structure do you (personally) need in order to feel free?” I have carried this question with me ever since. It informs my work facilitating emergent, participative and co-creative organizational development.
At that time, we were staying at a conference center near a lake deep in the German countryside. Along with the human participants, many animals seemed to also be “participating” in the learning. This particular day, Birgitt had seen a slug on the path. When she saw it - totally unprotected, it’s soft flesh fully exposed - making its way across to the grass she wondered if that sort of open structure would be comfortable enough for her to go out and explore the world. Would she feel free or would it paralyze her?
As I mused on the question, I began to realize some important things about myself and others. First of all, I realized I would probably not be so good as a slug, I need some more structure. A snail shell felt safer - some frameworks something hard to grasp onto and retreat into from which I could expand.
Yet, at the workshop and ever since I meet people for whom snail life would feel restrictive. Slug life feels so free, finally able to explore everything, exposed and open to the elements. And I also meet people who seem to say “snail….ah, I'm way too exposed.” To continue with invertebrates they seem to like how beetles are constructed with a strong exoskeleton that protects them as they go out and explore with ease.
If I take the metaphor a step further, each is able to live a generative and creative life and contribute fully to the environment, offering great service to the “organization/ecosystem.” Maybe equally important, all of them can be vulnerable to the thoughtless drop of a shoe. All of them need to beware of threats they encounter when living in a shared space and sometimes the threats are the same.
Structure Informs Freedom - How Much Is Really Enough?
So, I go back to the question. “How much structure do you need to feel free?” For me, over the years, several things have become clear. First, I need to know what my structure needs are and where I feel safe and not. Second, I need to realize that my needs are not the needs of a given group of people. It makes no sense to judge one way or the other. Contempt for different needs is destructive and in the end is never sustainable.
Reflection on structure and freedom has meant that I have learned to acknowledge that not everyone has the same needs for structure. Second, that trying to turn beetles into slugs or the other way around is not a useful enterprise. Finally and most importantly it means that as we to work together with our clients it is very fruitful and useful to go in search of liberating structures that work for everyone in their systems. This may mean that sometimes there is a bit more form than slugs feel they need and a bit less clarity for beetles as individuals. Yet there is a sweet spot where all of them feel safe enough to express their full potential. I like to think that the work I do is helping people create resilient, participative and emergent organizations...teams....communities....all goes back to this one reflection on a warm day in June. - "how much structure to you need to feel free?"