Book Review: Reframing Organizations

Reframing Organizations is a leadership classic, first published in 1984, and now in its 4th edition.  Written by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal, it’s a useful book to read and keep within arms’ reach when you need a new perspective on a problem.  Although the focus of the book is on looking at organizations using different metaphors, or frames, the authors’ advice and examples can be applied to specific business problems, as well.  Simply written, and broken into six clear-cut sections, the four primary frames of reference discussed in the book include The Structural Frame, The Human Resource Frame, The Political Frame, and The Symbolic Frame.  While these metaphors are fairly self-explanatory, the biggest lesson of the book is that different solutions present themselves when a leader takes the time to step out of the fray and deliberately examine the problem or organization from these perspectives.

The Structural Frame focuses largely on the organizational hierarchy and job roles various people in an organization play.  In industrialized businesses of the 20th century, highly structured org charts with narrowly defined job responsibilities were the norm, and worked well to create repeatable processes, such as those required in manufacturing, while also ensuring consistency in product output.  A person’s position on an org chart is often closely aligned with the scope of their authority and responsibilities.  An org chart with many levels can hinder communication, though, when formal channels exist primarily up and down on the org chart.  On the other hand, a largely flat organization may be disorganized and display ambiguity in leadership.  The value of using this frame as a lens through which to analyze a problem, though, is valuable regardless of the structure a given organization employs.  Structure can be seen everywhere – inside a company in its org chart, across multiple physical locations where teams may be distributed, within the cultures of off-shore partners or teams, and even within client organizations a company may do business with.  Taking the time to analyze structure, how it helps or hinders communication, speed of response, and flexibility, among other things is just one way of looking at a problem.

The Human Resources Frame reminds leaders to remember the human aspect of every organization or problem.  Conflict is inherent in any relationship, and can exist to various degrees within an organization.  When a leader stops to think about the social and human impact of decisions, policies, and organizational behavior, often compromises can be found that maintain respect for the people involved while also solving important business problems.

The Political Frame represents a perspective that, of the four in Reframing Organizations, is most likely to be maligned by employees.  Leaders are often criticized for “being too political,” but the fact is, politics are part of business.  It’s the intent behind the actions of a leader that can determine whether political means are used to the benefit or detriment of a company and its employees.  In reality, resources are always to some degree scarce, and this means leaders negotiate, make trade-offs, and use whatever influence they may have at their disposal to try to gain resources where they think they are needed.  The term resources can mean people, cash, time – anything that’s valuable in achieving an end goal.  It’s enlightening to step back from a problem or conflict and think about the political motivation of everyone involved.

The Symbolic Frame is the final frame discussed in the book, and in my opinion, one of the least-used frames of reference in business.  The Symbolic Frame is about viewing issues from a cultural perspective, understanding the history and legacy of a company, those unwritten and sometimes intangible things that influence how a company operates.  Symbol might be found in Mission or Vision statements, and can often be seen in the interactions of employees, marketing material generated by a company, and in internal communications.  Ritual and ceremony are not terms you hear often when businesses describe how they operate, but they are concepts that can go a long way to building a strong and positive company culture.

These four frames of reference are not the only frames through which problems and organizations can be viewed.  There are plenty of other metaphors out there, some originating from scientific fields of study, such as those offered in Systems Theory, Chaos Theory, and Complexity Theory.  The frames offered by Bolman and Deal, though, may be some of the easier and more approachable metaphors out there for taking apart problems and discovering solutions by looking at things from multiple perspectives.  Subtitled “Artistry, Choice, and Leadership,” the book is a useful addition to a leadership bookshelf.

Bolman, L. G. & Deal, T. E., (2008). Reframing Organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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