Structured Vs. Unstructured – What PMs Can Learn From Mozart

Don’t be like this guy! (Image by Christina, CC 2.0 licensed)

There’s always a balance between structure and lack of structure. It plays out in every domain, and especially every creative domain. Structure can help us think, can help us remember (i.e., be an offboard memory), and can give us guidelines within which to be creative.

Consider the classical composers – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven – each had a structure in which they composed, and part of their greatness was creating the greatest of works in that structure. The other part of their genius was in breaking the rules of those structures and extending the structures to accommodate new thinking and new avenues for creativity. We might not have had a Beethoven if Mozart had said “let there be no rules for music anymore!”

But, on the other hand, we wouldn’t have had a Beethoven if Mozart had only followed the rules he got from Bach. Breaking the rules, even while mostly playing within them, characterizes most important creative work across history. Even transgressive artists start from a structure – in fact, their transgression is only meaningful in opposition to the structure it transgresses.

The point is, some structure – the right structure – is good. History has shown that it’s better to have structure, but to break out of its rules sometimes, than to have no structure. ([tweetthis hidden_hashtags=”#prodmgmt”]It’s better to have structure but break the rules sometimes, than to have no structure.[/tweetthis]) And as the Heath Brothers discuss beautifully and at length in Decisive, you have to break your structure sometimes to enable creativity.

You have to strike a balance. Most tools “designed for” PMs are too constricting (see my earlier post on the danger of treating product management as a list management problem). But in contrast wikis are too freeform – they don’t help you think as a product manager, but just as a thinker. Without enough structure, it’s easier to leave stuff out of your thinking that you should be including (see my post about Impact Areas, for example). This is even more true if you want some analytical ability – analytics depends on structure.

Let me know what you think about structure and lack of structure in the comments.

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2 comments

  1. Craig J Willis

    Very true, structure forces us to fully explore within constraints before we break out of those structures. Having fully explored the structure makes you better qualified when you make the decision to leave. Even when you do leave you still rely on the structure as a reference point and if things work out well you end up redefining it for future use.

    I'm a firm believer in understanding underlying structures, it makes innovation easier.

    • Craig – thanks for this comment – I like your observation that a lot of times breaking the structure results in a new defined structure that people can use in the future.

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