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The Four Frame Model

This lesson is a part of an audio course Creative Problem Solving by Ross Maynard

The Four Frame Model was developed by Lee Bolman and Terry Deal and is presented in their book, "Reframing Organisations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership," published in 1991.

The authors argue that organisational problems should be analysed from four aspects:

  • The Structural Frame.

  • The Human Resources Frame.

  • The Political Frame.

  • The Symbolic Frame.

The Four Frame Model is useful for analysing the context of a problem from the point of view of the forces that affect an organisation's operation.

The Structural Frame is concerned with the goals, rules, procedures, policies, and technology of the organisation. To understand how these elements impact the problem, the problem-solving group should discuss:

  • How the problem impacts the business processes of the organisation – strategic planning and implementation; performance monitoring; management processes; operational processes, and so on.

  • How is the problem affected by the operation of the procedures and policies of the organisation? Is the problem exacerbated by the organisation's current ways of working?

  • What other interactions are there between the problem or its consequences and the business processes of the organisation?

The Structural Frame provides a means of analysing the problem in the context of its interaction with the organisation's formal structures and ways of working.

The Human Resources Frame focuses on the needs, feelings, and behaviours of the people in the organisation. It analyses the problem in terms of the culture of the organisation. Questions that the problem-solving group should discuss include:

  • How the problem impacts on the ability of the people in the organisation to do their job effectively and efficiently.

  • What behaviours or responses does the problem generate in the people affected by the problem?

  • What "work-arounds" or adjustments to normal routines are created by the problem?

  • What (if any) dysfunctional impacts does the problem have on people in the organisation?

The Human Resources Frame helps analyse the problem in terms of its impact on organisational culture and on the people in the organisation.

This is where the problem-solving group's discussion can become sensitive! The Political Frame focuses on interest groups, coalitions, and cliques in the organisation and how they seek to manage the people and resources available. In short, it is about the politics of the organisation.

Questions that the problem-solving group should discuss confidentially include:

  • How might the politics of the organisation limit the ability to resolve the problem?

  • How does the problem impact the politics and interest groups in the organisation? Does it work in favour of any groups over others?

  • How are different interest groups in the organisation seeking to use the problem to their advantage? How might that help or hinder its resolution?

  • How might new coalitions be built to help resolve the problem? What issues need to be addressed to create those coalitions?

The Political Frame can be a sensitive discussion area, but it is important to face up to the political reality of an organisation if a problem is going to be successfully tackled. The Political Frame helps explore the politics of the organisation and how they impact the problem.

The Symbolic Frame looks at the "meaning" of events and actions in the context of the organisation and its people. The meaning that people in the organisation take from its actions, announcements, and intentions can be very different to that intended.

While traditional views see organisations as rational and mechanistic, the symbolic frame emphasises both the complexity and ambiguity of organisational events and activities. Myths, legends, and stories inhabit every organisation to a greater or lesser extent, and the people in the organisation interpret the actions and announcements that the organisation makes in the light of these myths and stories. These stories can help people feel a sense of belonging to the organisation, but they can also lead to feelings of exclusion or dissatisfaction, which may not actually be warranted.

It is more difficult to phrase questions for the problem-solving group to discuss for the Symbolic Frame. These might include:

  • How does the problem feed into the myths, rumours, and stories that are circulating in the organisation?

  • Does the problem add fuel to certain stories and rumours in the organisation?

  • Is the problem leading to the creation of new stories and rumours?

  • How might the problem's impacts on the stories, myths, and rumours in the organisation be minimised?

Myths, legends, and stories are an inherent part of any organisation, and their interaction with the problem is explored through the Symbolic Frame.

The term "tame" problem does not imply that a problem is easy to solve; rather, it means that established problem-solving tools and structures work well and will usually lead to a satisfactory solution.

Structured problem-solving techniques do not work so well with Wicked Problems – as we shall see in the next section. So how do we know that the problem we are faced with is a tame problem?

Here are some pointers:

  1. Most problems, probably 95% or more, are Tame Problems, so the chances are that your problem can be handled using a structured step-by-step approach.

  2. If you know what to do when faced with the problem, then it is a Tame problem.

  3. Draw a process map. If the problem is contained within a single business process and is not all-pervading, then it is a Tame Problem.

  4. Use the Ishikawa Diagram to analyse the causes of the problem. If there are a small number of causes (say 5 or less), then it's a Tame Problem.

  5. Use the Forcefield Analysis tool to identify the forces acting in favour of resolving the problem and acting against. If there are only a few forces acting against the resolution of the issue, then it is a Tame Problem.

  6. Set up a Problem-Solving Team and start to work through the problem-solving steps. If it later becomes apparent that the problem is too complex to be solved by the team alone, then you may be dealing with a Wicked Problem.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In our next lesson we to turn to Wicked Problems.

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Written by

Ross Maynard

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