Some people see structure and freedom as two opposing ideas. The less you have of one, the more you have of the other. In part that is true, but honestly it is kind of pointless to talk about structure and freedom without talking about purpose. If you are trying to achieve a specific goal then often structure enables freedom.

For example, if I want to visit my parents for Christmas and the DOT decides to get rid of all lane markings and stoplights (more freedom), then I’m probably going to get stuck in a confused mass of traffic or get in a wreck. On the other end of the spectrum, placing stop signs every 10 feet (more structure) is either going to make my trip prohibitively slow or I will break the rules and that could lead to its own mess.

Structure and freedom must be balanced to optimize for a specific goal.

On the freedom side, I see people put into positions without clear guidelines. If they are of a cautious nature, then they may be hesitant to lead out to their full potential because they are afraid of overstepping the invisible boundary that they assume exists. Or they get lost in the vast options they have to choose from and they never make a decision. If they are of a bolder nature, then they may grab too much control and go farther than leadership intended. The truth is that there are boundaries and it is irresponsible of leadership to leave them unspoken at the outset.

On the structure side, I see people put into positions where there are unreasonable regulations and a train of managers yanking on their short leash. A cautious person may follow the rules and get little done. A bold person may break the rules to get the job done and make a mess in the process. All of this is multiplied by the cost of paying the micro-managers.

Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum is an efficient balance that is commonly termed “bounded autonomy”. The phrase itself seems oxymoronic which accurately depicts the tension that should exist between structure and freedom. It isn’t a line etched in stone but it is clear. It is the result of thoughtful conversations between leadership and those they lead and it evolves over time.

If structure is a leash and freedom has no borders, then bounded autonomy is a generously sized fence. It provides enough structure to help you focus but not so much that it inhibits your creativity and function. But appropriate structure is so much more than boundaries! It involves building the systems, infrastructure, and community that makes the right path the easy path.

So what kind of environment are you creating? The best way to find out is to ask ;)

  1. Agile
  2. Software Process

Erik Murphy

Erik Murphy

Erik is an agile software developer in Charlotte, NC. He enjoys working full-stack (CSS, JS, C#, SQL) as each layer presents new challenges. His experience involves a variety of applications ranging from developing brochure sites to high-performance streaming applications. He has worked in many domains including military, healthcare, finance, and energy.