Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Look Mom, No Training Wheels!

There's so much structure at most companies. There are hierarchies, policies, forms, regulations, processes, missions, procedures, reviews, plans, certifications. It goes on and on. Do you ever wonder how much of that is really needed to do the work?

That question crossed my mind a few weeks ago while reading the article Look Mom, No Training Wheels. According to the authors, training wheels on bicycles actually hinder one's learning to ride. They teach steering and balance habits that are the opposite(!) of those actually needed. In contrast, if children are given a right-sized bicycle and some basic instruction they learn much faster without training wheels, and it's easier on the parents. I wish someone had told me that when I was a kid!

I got to wondering how much of the structure at the typical company is only there to serve as training wheels. I have no idea, but I can name a lot of suspects. Nine-to-five? Document templates? Distribution lists? Operations manuals? Approval limits? Critical success factors? Meetings? A lunch hour? Budgets? Cubicles? Blackberries? Security badges? I'm purposely being provocative and, of course, a company can't function without structure. But there is such a thing as too much of it. Where should the line be drawn at your company?

Not all structures that seem like good ideas really are – training wheels seemed like a good idea at the time, didn't they? So don't be surprised if some entrenched, well-meaning, and sensible structures in your company are teaching workers exactly the wrong habits. Excess caution, indecision, indirectness, delay, reluctance, timidity, and deference are work habits that do not generally improve a company's performance. Yet they persist, and they do so for a reason. What is the reason at your company?