Gotta think outside the box. Every time I hear that phrase I squirm, because who, really, is trying to think inside a box? To be boring, unoriginal, square? No, we want to be free-form, unbound, curvilinear. We want to think thoughts no one has thought before. The thing is, a box can be awfully useful when you use it correctly. What that box can be, rather than a boundary, is a scaffold. A scaffold gives shape to something that isn’t yet built, or that doesn’t yet have enough strength to stand on its own. At work we’d call this scaffold a structure, or a process. The genius of a good structure is that it allows us to make only new mistakes, rather than the ones we (or someone else) have made before.

We have a set of processes we use to give structure to our work, to make sure that we all understand what steps are necessary for good outcomes. Glancing around my office at the posters, papers, and piles, I am reminded of three of them I’ve used: the venerable P-Process , The GATHER guide to contraceptive counseling, and this 9-step guide to pretesting. The strength in all of these products isn’t their brilliance (though they may indeed be brilliant) but in their reliability. If you follow these processes you can be sure you have covered your bases, laid your foundation, crossed your t’s and dotted your i’s…or whatever other cliché you can think of to mean doing things the right way. With a solid process you are free to rest on someone else’s experience and thinking for how you do something, and that frees your own thinking up to explore what you are going to do. It offers a box for you to stand on, rather than a box to shut you in.

It isn’t just formal processes with names and hyperlinks that offer scaffolding and structure. Examples and templates do the same thing. When I am looking to develop a new creative brief or a scope of work for radio spots I don’t start with an empty page: I ask around to find an example of one that my colleagues say is great, and I use it as a template. I may change the template, and I sometimes do ditch the structure entirely and create a one new if I think it would be useful. But I don’t start with a blank slate. I start with the box, then build.

I’ve always thought of my work world (communication, social science, development) as creative, flexible, and a little loose at the seams, while assuming that hard sciences were filled with admirable rigor, structure, and straight lines. My bedtime reading lately has been Richard Harris’ Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Create Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions, where he first lays out the pressures in biomedicine that lead to sloppy science, and then describes a movement to have sets of processes to prevent shortcuts, detrimental practices, and mistakes. There is even an entire chapter on p-value, for the nerdily-inclined. (Here is a short NPR article about revamping standards for biomedical research, if you don’t want to read a whole book.)  It was somehow reassuring to see that other fields struggle with developing structures and following them, too.

I don’t know about biomedical researchers, but for us in the health communication world, our challenge isn’t a lack of structures and processes (there are a ton, all with names and colorful visuals) but that we resist them, preferring instead to think outside the box. We might try, instead, to use the box to give us a boost.

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