Structure is essential if you want to make change stick. In fact, I can say from personal experience — my own life and from years of coaching and consulting, without the right structure to support it, change won’t happen or be sustainable.
Probably the most obvious idea of personal change and how structure matters is diet and exercise. Have you had the experience of walking around the gym carrying a clipboard, marking down each exercise and rep on your workout plan? And the first thing any dietitian will ask you to do is to track your food. Whether counting points, eating on a food plan, or entering your macros in an app on your phone — that’s a form of structure.
Structures exist in your workplace that you don’t even notice anymore. Originally these were designed to help foster and sustain change in process, culture, rules — anything that guides behavior. Over time, though, they’ve become part of the way of life, so you don’t think of them as anything special.
It’s far easier to think of structures that are new — the ones that you are being forced to use, the ones that feel awkward, oppressive, irritating or even insulting.
Yes, insulting. That is how one of my clients, a shop floor team lead, described the hour by hour tracking process he had to follow in his department. The operators write down their piece production each hour and the supervisor keys the numbers into the computer at the end of each shift. To the lead, it feels embarrassing to have to write down everything hour by hour — and when someone misses the target, writing a number less than the target feels, well, horrible.
But what you measure improves. As uncomfortable as using the structure may be, the data they’ve collected has been valuable. Productivity has gone up some as the operators keep a more consistent pace throughout the day, working with less fatigue, and thus, more attention to both safety and quality.
When you quit measuring, results slide. After about three months of using the process, the supervisor decided to end the tracking practice, discarding the structure that has been so helpful. His rationale? Tracking takes extra time, makes people uncomfortable, and while they did get some usable information from the data they collected, he felt that the guys had a handle on it now. It didn’t take long for productivity to decline.
Sound familiar? It reminds me of the time I lost 30 pounds over about three months on a diet and exercise plan. And after all that success, I stopped using the structure. I figured I had a handle on it now. Plus I was sick of all that tracking and counting. And, yes, you guessed it: it didn’t take long to pack back on 10 of those pounds. And when I tried to go back and reintroduce the structure, getting back on track was WAY harder than if I had stuck it out and accepted the structure as a new practice, a new way of life. I wasn’t able to see that the structure, although irritating and exhausting, was the key to making and sustaining the changes needed for success.
It’s the same thing with that hour by hour board — and with any other behavioral change process.
Our egos tell us that we don’t need all that structure, we don’t need all that change; that discomfort is bad for us, that conflict is unsafe — that structure feels gross.
Something about structure can make us feel small and silly for needing it, causing us to resist and ultimately abandon it — even if we got great results.
It can take years for a particular structure to feel natural, and it may never ever feel normal or a way of life, even if helping you get the results you want. But structure is essential if you want change to happen and you want it to stick.