Reframing Organizations

Reframing Organizations

Authors: Lee G Bolman & Terrence E. Deal

Reviewed by: Graham White

The author JR Rim once wrote that “the more you get set into your own world, the smaller your world becomes”. When I picked up Reframing Organizations by Boleman and Deal I couldn’t help wondering whether Rim’s suggestion was true and I was about to enter a shrinking world as I discovered I was reading a sixth edition? However, I could not have been more wrong. I had hardly got past the back cover before I began to realise that I held in my hand something that was both old yet new, established yet ground breaking and traditional yet revolutionary. I had a book in my hand that began transforming business leaders before I had my first management post, yet this publication was as vibrant and fresh today as it had ever been. This new sixth edition presented the information in a fresh and flowing narrative, like the Tardis, no matter what new information the authors required to fit into it about generational differences or virtual leadership, none of the previous wealth of information, knowledge and guidance was ever lost.

If as Da Vinci suggested, “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” then the deceptively simple model contained in the first half of this book provides a wonderfully fresh and timely roadmap, if not SatNav designed to take you safely and efficiently through whatever turbulence you find your organisation is facing. As the political and economic climate of this world continues to evolve and influence the place we call work Bolman and Deal subdivide these aspects of our lives into aspects called factories, families, jungles and temples. I don’t plan to say too much about that concept as it becomes something of a thrill ride as you begin by doubting the analogy and ultimately end up on a roller coaster ride searching out the definitions on each page and seeking to allocate them to each of the four frames.

The golden thread throughout the book continues on from its previous quintet of editions by focusing on leadership and management, making sure you don’t mix the two up. The book sets the base line by reminding readers as early as the Preface that managers do things right but leaders do right the things. The concrete upon which this foundation of basic leadership is set is hardly dry before the writers launch into a scathing challenge of corporate butterflies and poorly managed organisations by reminding readers that even the most charismatic of leaders cannot deliver success to an over managed and poorly led organisation.

The overall structure of the book is made up of a very comfortable pattern which I believe is deliberately designed to mirror the unique “Framework” concept that sets this book apart. I believe it is important for the reader to get the concept early in the book or you will continually return to the early chapters to ensure you are remaining on track. From a very early example of Goran Carstedt, the mastermind behind the turnaround of Volvo’s French division, the book explains that success in any environment needs an intellectual structure, a set of simple yet efficient rules that are learned or hard-coded by evolutionary processes. The book has looked to explain how people make decisions, come to judgments, and solve problems when facing complex issues or challenging hurdles. This process sits at the heart of the book’s logic and outlines the thinking that creates the book’s key message. Some people call this Schema, Boleman and Deal have developed their thinking around this concept and decided to call it Frames. The word itself does not carry any real significance, however the use of their concept of “Frames” makes understanding very logical and will suit many readers thinking styles. Most modern buildings today are constructed with a firm foundation followed by an outer framework around which the building develops, evolves and grows. Taking the same analogy you quickly think you have discovered how the writers have constructed the book and how framing will form the central core of thinking.

Then just when you think you are ready to dive into the body of the book you are halted in the middle of the first chapter for a further and significant piece of the learning jigsaw. This formative aspect of the book is probably the secret treasure that sets it apart from so many other leadership type books. Up to this point the reader will have gradually developed an understanding of the need for structure. You have seen how the physical development of a building neatly mirrors the cultural build of an organisation. But just when you think it all makes logical sense the writers deliver “reframing” and suddenly you have moved from planning to heuristics or from possibilities to paradigms. The writers describe it as no longer spending all their time trying different solutions and instead spending all your time reframing the problem so that you are able to pick the right solution quickly.

The initial frames of Factories, Families, Jungles and Temples create a realisation that each of the four original frames are unique in their structure and polar in their cultures.  I don’t plan to spoil the book by revealing any further specific secrets. However, if I tell you part two of the book promises examples as varied as racing crews and 9/11 rescue teams you will begin to feel the hunger I had for each page to turn and each example to increase my understanding. As the first third of the book ends I found myself beginning to realise that whilst I had always accepted that one size does not fit all, the concept that underpins reframing also reminds the reader that even successful structures must develop, must prove their plans, and must broaden their thinking if accountability is to remain collective.

As a retired HR Director I reached part three of the book with a high sense of expectation, launching myself into the Human Resource Frame. I was in the section for less than three page when I was already feeling challenged and chastised in equal measure. If organisations exist to serve human needs rather than the converse how is it possible to accept the paradox that needs energise and guide behaviour? However, as you journey through sixty years of motivational models from Maslow to Pink it feels a  little like how Alice must have felt falling down the rabbit hole with theories flying past on all sides. In this section watch out for Theory X and Theory Y that send you running for your dictionary to ensure you really understand the interpretation of self-actualisation.  If I have a favourite chapter, and that is difficult in a book that holds sparkles of brilliance in almost every page it would be chapter 7 – Improving Human Resource Management. Having read these twenty pages three times I found myself repeating a simple mantra that reached out to me from a score of pages. Whilst others can write extensive books about HR Strategy, Bolman and Deal condensed this into four basic tasks. Hire them – Keep them – Invest in them and promote them.

Arriving at the final section of the book, the authors have shown they are already unafraid of controversy, looking for supporting evidence in every corner of life and work from the appalling consequences of 9/11 to the tragedy of Space Shuttle Columbia, Bolman and Deal have dived boldly into subjects such as Organisations & Politics and Corporate Rituals & Ceremonies. Yet the best is kept to the last as you discover that the writers deliver a blinding flash of the obvious by declaring that problems and complexity go hand in hand. Acknowledging that the world of business planning rarely fits into well-defined categories, the book’s final section develops the whole concept of reframing. From reframing actions to reframing ethics, all of the book until this chapter has been preparing the reader to reach this point in their thinking.  All of the thought processes and empirical evidence collides together in a realisation that persistent strategic thinking creates its own form of tunnel vision causing many leaders to take an increasingly  narrow view of their responsibilities.

The concept of multi-framing which has echoed quietly throughout the book finally becomes its cumulative solution. Whilst it warns that embracing reframing may initially seem counterintuitive you are left in no doubt that the alternative thinking required to simultaneously see your organisation as a factory, family, jungle and theatre creates a requirement for today’s leaders to be able to continually spot multiple new opportunities. Reframing may not be the only solution to this challenge but it certainly sets the bar in terms of what is required by business leaders in this shrinking world that sees every new initiative as a global opportunity.   The challenge this book addresses relates to the need for business to catch up before the world catches on. Living in the twenty first century where uncertainty is now a competence rather than an emotion, Reframing Organizations has delivered a masterclass in how to prepare and deliver success in a world of mayhem and commotion. Whether its digital disruption, political upheaval or economic turmoil, the book declares that leaders need to develop an ability to reframe their environments in a manner that will ensure they not only understand the purpose of their organisation but also be able to see their organisation in a perpetual three dimensional view so that they can create solutions that shape current answers and at the same time are aware and actively looking ahead to the changing circumstances that are accelerating towards us at an ever increasing speed.

In reaching the end of this book the fear I have is that the breadth and extent of the thinking accidentally may nudge the reader from feeling motivated to feeling overwhelmed. The key to using the book is not to mirror every page and chapter from day one but rather to take it one step at a time. I leave the final words to Edmund Burke who very poignantly introduced the chapter on the manager as a Politian. He states “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little”

Graham White, Retired HR Director

Published by Wiley

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