Structured (dys)Function

Do you remember H1N1? In 2009/10 it caused 17,000 deaths across the world. Vaccines were rushed to market and inoculations en-masse took place. And at my place of employment we instituted a standing agenda item called the “Health Minute” at our twice-monthly leadership meetings.

Despite H1N1 petering out, the “Health Minute” persisted. It was a chance to go around the table and tell the other folks (supervisors, managers and executives) how healthy your team was. Needless to say, it quickly became redundant (given the absence of a pandemic), yet managed to persist as a standing agenda item for nearly 4 years (despite some minor grumblings that I’d throw out every now and again to revisit the usefulness of said agenda item).

What’s this all about? I think it’s a fundamental mis-alignment between function and structure.

Function is about performing a task or solving a problem. Pretend that you have a river to cross. How many different ways can you get across? Swim? Buy a boat? Build a bridge? All different structures, or mechanisms to perform the function of crossing the river. Swimming is the cheapest, building a bridge the most expensive. Depending on your needs (now and in the future), you may chose one or the other.

What we often stop doing is assessing our structures to see if they still function effectively in solving our problems or performing our tasks. Much like the “Health Minute”, a lot of our institutions mistakenly embrace structures AS IF they will naturally continue to function as they historically have, despite changes in the context of the very problem.

On Saturday, I’m running an “unworkshop” at ConnectEd, a gathering of teachers at the Calgary Science School. We’re going to be talking about changing systems, and probably a lot about function and structure.

Here’s one of my favorite TED talks from Sir Ken Robinson, about the structures of education and how they no longer function the way we need them to.

I encourage you to take a few minutes and think about the structures that you’ve built in your life, and what the function of those structures ought to be. Anything mismatched? Any “Health Minutes” in your life? Structures that have developed to function in a context that no longer exists? Do you find yourself doing something out of habit, but it no longer serves the same purpose it once did? If so, it might be time to do a little renovating.

You’ll be happy to know that the “Health Minute” will soon be gone. Until the next pandemic, of course.