Structure versus Systems

What comes first, systems or structure? While we might think that the question has an obvious answer, it is reasonably complex. In this article we unpack some of the thinking around it.

A system is an interrelated network structure sequences, much like a spiral staircase pictured here.
Image source: seier+seier

The background

In a workshop that Brutal Pixie ran recently, there was a question raised about what comes first: Structure, or systems?

For context, the business in question has some audacious growth goals for the next five to six years. They’re highly focused, so it’s likely that they will achieve what they set out to do.

Their major focus right now is to systematise their business. They want to be able to have multiple offices, and know that every one of them looks the same, and runs identically to every other one.

This is not just driven by a desire to be efficient, though that is obviously a large part of it. They are driven to create a seamless customer experience. That experience needs to be exactly the same from one office to another.

In doing this type of work, people focus on systems. They need “better systems” for doing things. They need “better systems” in their technology.

And while people can picture the end goal, it’s not often we have a clear idea about what the steps along the way involve. Thinking structure first is helpful, but even that may cause you to miss pieces.

What is ‘structure’?

As one of the participants pointed out to the person who posed the question, the systems are the parts and the systems are the frameworks that hold the parts together.

This is almost right. Almost, because it’s not deep enough.

Structure, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (UK), is the “arrangement of and relations between the parts or elements of something complex”.

So, what are systems?

A system is “a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole.”

In both cases we have parts, and an arrangement of those parts. But a system is where all of those parts are connected and working together.

What this means for business

When we consider our businesses therefore, we properly need to understand, and create:

  • each of the parts
  • the relationship between the parts
  • the sequencing of the parts
  • the number of sequences
  • how those sequences work together best
  • how to connect the sequences.

Depending on how you break things down, your parts may also be sequences of other parts. In some cases, the sequencing might be work, but the way the sequences are put together might not be the best or most efficient method.

It’s in looking at how each sequence adds value that we come to a system that moves beyond mere functionality.

This is the same framework of thinking for content strategy

Every content strategy is a complex beast, but the thinking it takes to create it is much the same. What are the parts, how do they relate to each other, what is the sequence, how do the sequences work together best, what is the best way to connect them.

The real challenge lies in making the parts useful, functional, and relevant. And then in finding the sequence that works best for whatever outcome is your goal. In our customer’s case (referenced above), each assessment of the structure and the sequence should properly be considered in the light of the ultimate goal, which is a seamless customer experience.

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