Introduction to Framing and Systems Thinking

I’m studying the course Creating a Team Culture of Continuous Learning on Coursera. These are my revision notes for week 1.

Framing, Reframing & Systems Thinking

Framing and Reframing

  • Metaphor: different camera lenses
  • If you put on a telephoto lens, you’re going to see something quite different to what you would see through a wide-angle lens
  • When people are in meetings, they usually come from a particular place or discipline, and they are caught in that way of looking at things
  • Example of reframing:
    • Tell me about the problems you are having in your organisation.
    • Stop! We don’t have problems here, we have only challenges.
  • Reframing: moved from a negative to ways to empower the organisation
  • What is a frame? Do we know what our frames are?
    • By default, we look at a situation, and we try and we try and make sense.
    • There’s so much information that you can’t make sense unless you apply a frame
  • How do I use someone else’s frame?
  • Often, there are questions about “who is responsible?” or “who is to blame?”
  • We must replace the “blame frame”. Change to a learning or discovery frame.
    • This is a big aspect of why teams don’t find solutions

The Story of George Washington Bridge

  •  Background:
    • The George Washington Bridge is one of the major arteries of traffic into the city of New York from the west
    • It’s always a bottleneck, even when traffic is flowing smoothly
    • When there’s problems or accidents, the bottleneck becomes a complete standstill, which is a serious issue for life all around the city
  • This story is about barriers, in more ways than one
  • It’s the middle of the 1970’s. Usually, about once a month, there’s a head-on collision on the bridge
  • Stakeholders:
    • The nearest hospital is Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. All the staff work very hard to save the lives of the victims of these crashes
      • No matter what the hospital staff do to improve their service, the accidents still happen. They’re not preventing accidents from happening.
    • the police, law enforcement, the Port Authority
      • Looked to prevent accidents through the enforcement of laws
    • the maintenance departments
      • Looked to prevent accidents ensuring the paint the double-yellow lines was fresh, using glow in the dark paint
    • These groups are also working to improve their ability to prevent accidents.
    • They do not prevent the accidents
  • Everyone is doing their part to improve their area of responsiblity, but the system isn’t really changing, and the accidents still happen.
  • Until….
    • Everyone steps back from their part of the problem, and thinks about the system as a whole
    • When they do that, new innovative breakthroughs and solutions are possible
    • As you think about the whole problem, it’s possible to think about solutions that prevent all accidents from happening so there are zero defects (no accidents at all)
  • The solution (in this case) happened to be concrete barriers
    • A solution was devised that dissolved the problem. Not just solved it, but made it disappear. This is an important breakthrough!
  • Why did it take so long? Why do people take so long to find solutions?
    • The barriers were invented in 1959, but weren’t installed until 1975.
    • The stakeholders were approaching the problem from their own frames.
    • They were looking at their part of the problem, not the whole problem
      • For example, the medical team was more focused on enhancing patient services, rather than thinking about how to prevent these accidents happening in the first place
    • What if I could figure out how to look at the problem from a different angle? Use a different lens?
    • The barriers on the bridge are the solution
    • The barriers in peoples minds prevent us from reaching the solution much sooner
    • We take these complicated, complex problems that are difficult to get our hands on, and we break them up into pieces.
    • Then it’s easier to work in that limited area, but connecting these areas is the hard part
    • That’s where the problems lie, connecting the different areas of responsibility
    • This is why the reframing aspect whole system is important

Cross Functional Team Designing a Rewards Program

  • Each team member had their own department heads
  • Functions were siloed, and very hard to get a meeting together when needed
  • There were conflicts over priorities and goals
  • Team members were not able to understand the other persons’ perspective (or frames)
  • Decisions got delayed, project timelines were impacted
  • How to get the teams unstuck?

Frames – Defined and Illustrated

  • Frames are determined by multiple factors. For example,
    • a person’s discipline
    • field of study
    • role
  • For example,
    • If an economist looks at a team working, they might ask “what is their economic incentive for participating in this team?”
    • If a sociologist looks at they same team, they might ask “what are the demographics of the team, and how do they influence what’s happening?”
  • Frames for this course:
    1. Group, or organisation, or system as a whole
    2. Connect with group literature that has been around for over 100 years
    3. Look at the issue of scapegoating
      • Look at the dynamics of the group or team, and not blaming one individual or group (avoid the blame game)

Scenario – Computer Manufacturing Company

  • Company makes computers that they sell to other businesses, who then sell them on the retail market
  • Now they’re contemplating marketing and producing a product of their own to sell on the retail market
    • Design engineers keen for a new creative
    • Finance sees opportunity
    • Pressure to reduce production costs or else lose business
    • Groups are having trouble with seeing from other perspectives
    • They’ve already had 2 2-hour meetings
  • Noticed that the camera angle is changing often, which I assume is an example of changing frames
  • At the end of the third meeting
    • Senior finance person:
      • hasn’t see projections.
      • If the finances aren’t there, the project isn’t there
    • IT Design Engineer:
      • team is really excitied.
      • Aside: (I’ve been waiting years to launch our own product line. But the meeting is very disappointing. I don’t think my colleages see the potential here)
      • I’m hiring new people every day. If we don’t give them something to do, we’re going to lose them
    • Production Manager:
      • We’re maxed out already. We’re talking about creating a whole new line. If we hire new staff, I think we can manage it
      • Aside: (I am about to lose 4 people, two are my best line people. If those 2 go, 3 more will also go. They’re not happy. They don’t like the wages or the hours. I’m worried that we’re going to lose them)
    • Finance:
      • we’re going to have to reduce costs. Everyone is going to have to reach an accomodation.
    • Senior Marketing Person:
      • It’s the launch of a new product.
      • There’s not way that we can launch this the ways are configured now.
      • Something has to be sacrificed
      • Aside: (I have an entire staff who doesn’t know how to launch a new product. This is a complete marketing overhaul, and I need a bigger budget. I need to get in more people, get existing people up to speed. I can’t see how to do this in 9 months)
      • I don’t feel that this group understands how competitive the retail market is.
      • I worry that we’re going to burst into the market, and have our pants down
    • Production:
      • It’s a grand plan, but people cannot work any faster
      • I’m worried about burn out and possible accidents
    • Head of Legal and Contracts
      • Before we consider staffing, we need to consider legal issues
      • We have a contractual obligation to our customers
      • If we use existing technology to create a new product, we could be sued
    • Finance:
      • We’ve discussed this before. We have not signed any contracts which prevents us from making a new product
    • Legal:
      • Aside: (This is a bad idea. Clearly none of them are concerned about the legal ramifications. If we get sued, we’ll get stuck in the courts for years. We’re not financially ready to do that, it could really affect our bottom line).
    • Finance:
      • Aside: (This is the scond project that I have worked on where no one sems to be concerned about budget. If they have any more massive overruns like last time, my reputation is on the line)
      • I’m worried about the overhead here
      • Our margins are so bad that we’re going to be losing money in 6 months
    • Production:
      • chef analogy with bad tools

Debrief – Scenario

  • Everyone was stuck in their frame. They had a hard time looking outside of the frame
  • Legal
    • She was only focussed on the risks involve in the new business opportunity
    • Not considering the cost pressures the organisation is facing, or the market realities they might have to face later
    • Seemed convinced that the entire project was a train wreck
    • She was not willing, or not aware of the bigger picture
  • From the scene, you could see that they were stuck. Every member was acting out a part of staying within the straightjacket of their role
  • We start to identify with each character, and what they’re saying as though it’s about their personality or the way they are, rather than what they’re representing in the organisation. This is a mistake we often make
    • Embedded group theory
    • Studying Intergroup Relations Embedded in Organisations (Alderfer & Smith, 1982)
  • Think about the person’s role in the organisation, not their personality
  • The meeting could be more productive if we could get out of our frame, and understand the other person’s frame
  • Time pressure is a factor
  • Some of the most important information was given to observers in asides. This information was not shared with others in the meeting
  • Are we really putting all our issues on the table. Are we talking about them in a constructive, open way
  • Somewhere along the line, you do have to step back
  • Every person in the meeting is representing their point of view. What about the large system?What would it take to think about the system?
  • We are training in analytical thinking. Break a problem into parts, solve the parts indepentantly, and then try and assemble them into a solution
  • In systems thinking, we’re thinking about what needs to be explained by putting it in the context of a larger system
  • In this scenario, the larger system is the opportunity to develop a new product. However, if everyone is sticking to their own frame, they’re not going to get there.

Studying Intergroup Relations Embedded in Organizations (Alderfer & Smith, 1982)

Strength Based Approaches to Organizations

  • Don’t come into an organisation and asking “Where are the dead bodies?”
  • Come in looking for their strengths
    • Reframe looking for organisational strenghts rather than deficits (Cooperrider & Srivasta 1987)
  • Framing (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981)
    • Research on how we frame decisions, and how people choose
    • It’s often possible to frame a problem in more than one way
    • They explored this framing effect in a hypothetical life or death situation
    • Participants in the study were asked to choose between different programs to combat the outbreak of a deadly disease which could affet 600 lives
      • Choice was given as either  a positive frame (how many people will live) or a negative frame (how many people will die)
      • 72% of participants chose the program with the positive framing
      • Only 22% chose the same program when presented with negative framing
      • Both the problems were identical
      • The difference was in the outcomes, which was described as either saving lives versus the number of lives lost

Discussion Prompt: Assignment 1 – Experiential Exercise

  • Four different frames
    • Innovative architect
    • Health & safety expert
    • Disabled person in a wheel chair
    • 5 year old kid

Debrief – Experiential Activity

  • There are things that we pass every day that we don’t notice. However, when we change our frame, these things come into the forefront.
  • The exercise gives us permission to change frames. But it is very easy to do.
  • What are ways that I can frame my questions so that the person I’m asking understands that I’m coming from a different frame
  • Changing frame
    • I wonder how our customers would view the issue?
    • I wonder how legal would view this issue?
  • What if the computer manufactor meeting started with a discussion of the changing market scenario, and the cost pressures faced by the organisation. That probably would have changed the dialog, and help participants to come out of their rames.
  • Framing and Reframing can unblock learning in teams
  • Explict reframing:
    • “Take off your management hat, and put on your customer hat”
    • Call attention to to we’re looking at it and ask how to reshape that, reframe that
  • Multiple levels:
    • individual level
    • interpersonal level
    • group level
    • organisational level
    • market level
  • Observe in your next meeting
    • What are the frames that the team members bring to the meeting?
    • Are they able to understand others’ perspectives?
    • Are the willing to explore others’ ideas?
    • Or are they stuck to their frames?

Strength Based Approaches (Asplund & Blacksmith, 2011)

  • How Strengths Boost Engagement
  • The 12 elements of great managing
    1. I know what is expected of me at work
    2. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right
    3. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day
    4. In the last 7 years, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work
    5. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person
    6. There is someone at work who encourages my development
    7. At my, my opinions seem to count
    8. The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important
    9. My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work
    10. I have a best friend at work
    11. In the last 6 months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress
    12. This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow

Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987)

  • Appreciative Inquiry in Organisational Life
  • Abstract:
    • This chapter presents a conceptual refiguration of action-research based on a “sociorationalist” view of science. The position that is developed can be summarized as follows: For action-research to reach its potential as a vehicle for social innovation it needs to begin advancing theoretical knowledge of consequence; that good theory may be one of the best means human beings have for affecting change in a postindustrial world; that the discipline’s steadfast commitment to a problem-solving view of the world acts as a primary constraint on its imagination and contribution to knowledge; that appreciative inquiry represents a viable complement to conventional forms of action-research; and finally, that through our assumptions and choice of method we largely create the world we later discover.

The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981)

  • The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice
  • Summary:
    • The psychological principles that govern the perception of decision problems and the evaluation of probabilities and outcomes produce predictable shifts of preference when the same problem is framed in different ways. Reversals of preference are demonstrated in choices regarding monetary outcomes, both hypothetical and real, and in questions pertaining to the loss of human lives. The effects of frames on preferences are compared to the effects of perspectives on perceptual appearance. The dependence of preferences on the formulation of decision problems is a significant concern for the theory of rational choice.

Systems Thinking Frame

  • When attending a meeting, we must represent our own frame. However, it is also important that we adopt and listen, and take on other frames. Systems thinking is all about that.
  • Analytical thinking: separate something into parts, understand the parts, and then see how the parts fit together
  • Systems thinking (as opposed to our analytical framing) asks us to do something else. Take the part we are trying to explain, and see how that works in a larger system.
  • Metaphor for Systems Thinking: Concentric Circles
  • Example of car:
    • You can pull a car apart and understand all the individual pieces.
    • However, you won’t understand why it is the size it is, or why the size has changed since the 50’s.
    • Instead of viewing the car as a transportation machine, think of it as something to move families.
    • You only understand that when you think about the car’s role in society.
  • Example of education:
    • School classes, 1 teacher, 20-30 children.
    • Why that configuration?
    • Need systems thinking to answer:
      • What is this preparing them to do?
      • What is being taught?
      • What role does that play?
  • When we want to get the purpose, we need the systems thinking piece
  • Getting rid of a problem does not necessarily led to what you want
  • Is thinking about the system as a whole too much information?
    • It’s a different set of questions that we’re asking
    • If you’re really trying to understand purpose and possibility, that’s a different space
  • Discovery space: not about getting rid of problems, but formulating problems in such as way that we can see possibilities that were not clear before
  • By thinking of a goal and working backwards, we may avoid the constraints that block us going forward
  • Analysis and synthesis
  • Example:
    • People leaving a group
    • Was told this was because of monetary compensation
    • In the larger system, compensation is only part of the rewards system
    • What are the various monetary and non-monetary rewards?
  • Considering the system rather than individualising issues or problems
  • Win/Lose frame
    • If I give you something, I have to take something away from someone else
  • Reframing: changing win/lose to win/win solutions

Systems Thinking with Dr. Russell Ackoff

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