Structure and freedom

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

Dave Snowden has good post about putting tools in their place. The essence of his argument is this:

If you pick up a tool and it fits your hand its useful, if you have to bio-rengineer your hand to fit the tool something is going badly wrong.

He argues that with new technologies overenthusiastic early use often forces too much change on the human beings in the system and actually constrains their ability to collaborate. He sees Sharepoint as a case in point. He makes a good case for “modular” technology where (as I would put it) there are structures or tools, but they are controlled locally rather than centrally. I suppose blogs would be a case in point.

In Improv, people talk a lot about the paradox of structure and freedom. With no structure, there is chaos, with too much structure there’s no creativity or life. They are not opposites. This video shows me playing a little improv game in the pub with my friend Jesper Bindslev. I set out a few bits of structure at the start, but what then emerges is improvised within that structure, and (I think) is playful and very human. (Click here for video if you don’t see it embedded below.) Having used this activities hundreds of times, I can assure that the outcomes vary wildly from one iteration to the next, but nearly always conform to the rules of thumb set out at the start. However, if people do the activity repeatedly, they naturally start to push against the initial set of rules and/or spontaneously decide to try variations of the game. If you look in the comments when I first posted this clip, someone suggests doing a mindmap collaboratively with similar constraints. It’s a small example of our natural desire to adjust structures to support our natural desire to experiment and learn.

Dave elaborates on his theme using a gardening analogy:

With too much structure there is no space for novelty. The dilemma at the moment is that social computing considered overall is a wild flower garden, richly diverse and constantly changing. On the other hand most corporate computing environments are the equivalent of the highly formal gardens of the 17th Century, before they were swept away by the naturalistic movement of the 18th Century.

This reminded me of Rob’s excellent post about permaculture, with some very sophisticated examples of highly effective systems that use constraints intelligently to let nature work its full magic whilst meeting our needs for sustanable food.

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