Are you tired of butting up against the same old cultural obstacles to innovation in your organization? Wouldn’t it be nice to see through them to the light on the other side?
If you long for that kind of relief, you’ll appreciate Reframing Organizations, a great book by Bolman and Deal that I recently used to teach an Organizational Behavior course at Portland State University. From a comprehensive review of organizational behavior studies and theories, these folks have uncovered four themes, or frames, from which organizational behaviors and challenges can be best understood. Each frame provides a different perspective, and each leads to different insights about causes and potential opportunities.
The four frames are:
- Structural – Organization as factory
- Political – Organization as jungle
- Human Resources – Organization as family
- Symbolic – Organization as theatre
There’s an entire book full of wisdom that goes with the frames. But you can see just from this little tidbit that applying the metaphors to what’s going on in your team, department, or company gets you thinking in new ways.
It’s likely that your organization’s prevailing culture supports thinking and acting from just one frame, and that’s the box you’re in. The most effective leaders work their way out of the box by being able to invoke whichever of the four frames supplies the best understanding and influencing strategies for the situation at hand. That kind of balance is rare in organizations but it can be developed.
Bolman and Deal’s frames don’t have an implied sequence, but they resonate with the four sequential activities that make up the Reciprocal Model, a creative process model that I use in my leadership development work. The sequence adds value because it shows the way out of the box. Here are the four creative process activities, in order, that go with Bolman and Deal’s frames:
- Structural frame – Challenge activity (develops quality)
- Political frame – Produce activity (develops capacity)
- Human Resources frame – Appreciate activity (develops engagement)
- Symbolic frame – Explore activity (develops curiosity)
If you can identify what your organization’s current default frame is, then the path to a more adaptive culture can start by your using the next frame in the sequence to inform your analysis and guide your planning. And you can start along that path by engaging in the creative process activity associated with that next frame.
So, for example, if you determine your organization defaults to the Symbolic frame – organization as theatre – then the way out would be the Structural frame – organization as factory – and the activity to engage in would be the Challenge activity (holding potential options up to scrutiny with the goal of picking one to execute).
Many organizations eventually come to the realization that the default frame they’re working from has outlived its usefulness. Unfortunately, their approach at that point is usually to restructure into a different default frame and stay there until it stops working for them. So every several years there is a restructuring that uses a lot of the organization’s energy and loses a lot of valuable organizational memory. With that strategy, the underlying problem – lack of balance – is never addressed.
I don’t think that’s the best use of an organization’s resources. It would be more effective for an organization to develop the ability to run through the four frames more fluidly as each situation requires. The creative process offers a practical guide to doing just that. I encourage you to look at the white paper to get a feel for how that might be apply to your work situation. And then, of course I encourage you to try it out. If you do, let me know how it goes.