Five Key Frames for Complex Situations

Leadership is complex. You know that – you live in the complexity everyday. It’s often hard to know how to even approach some of these situations and opportunities. Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal argue in their bestselling classic Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership that how we look at situations is critical to finding effective paths forward.

Specifically, Bolman and Deal contend that we need to carefully look at situations from more than one angle. Our initial perspective may be too simplistic, general, biased or limited. This can cause leaders to misread a situation and can lead to significant consequences.   

Their book suggests four key lenses or frames to help assess organizational complexity:

  1. Structural Frame – Every organization has a structure that organizes people, teams and functions. Roles, goals, policies, environment and technology are all key aspects of structure. Some structures are fairly flat and some are broader with complex hierarchy.
  2. Human Resource Frame – This frame looks at the people side of an organization. The needs, skills, and relationships of people comprise this frame.
  3. Political Frame – Organizations have to prioritize and allocate finite resources. This process is political and involves stewarding power, navigating conflict and building coalitions.
  4. Symbolic Frame – Symbols can be powerful shapers of culture. Whether these symbols are rituals, ceremonies, stories, spaces, heroes or physical objects, they can provide purpose, meaning and inspiration.

To briefly apply these frames, take the example of a local church that is considering moving to a multi-campus model:

  1. Structural FrameWould the new campuses be separate self-governing entities? Peers to the planting campus? Would the new campus leadership report directly to the church board or to the planting campus staff leadership?  Would there be shared ministry between campuses? If so, how is leadership and accountability established? Will the policies of the planting campus need to be modified for a multi-campus model?
  2. Human Resource FrameWill any staff from the planting campus be assigned to the new campuses? What are the key skills needed to move to this model?  Who needs to have these skills?  What kind of training and support is needed?
  3. Political FrameWhat financial support will be needed assist the multi-campus initiative?  For how long? What initiatives will need to be put on hold to concentrate resources on helping the new campuses succeed? How will communication and conflict be handled between the planting and new campuses?
  4. Symbolic FrameIs there an icon or symbol that could inspire this step of growth?  Are there some rituals or physical objects from the planting campus that should be part of the new campuses in order to build a sense of connection and shared culture?

These four frames provide a more comprehensive view of the issues.  However, for Christ-followers, there is another frame – the spiritual frame.  This is the critical frame that seeks to prayerful discern what God is doing and desires to do. It’s also a frame that is sensitive to the evil one’s agenda and activity.

Whatever your scenario today or into the future, these five frames can be very helpful lenses to bring clarity in the midst of complexity. Be sure to take a look through each frame. Pay special attention to the frames that are not your natural frames – this is where you can get into trouble. Enlist help from others who can bring insights from frames that are more challenging or new to you.