Organizational Change: From Cluelessness to Reframing

In a world that is becoming ever more turbulent and complex, organizations are pervasive and dominant. The challenges facing leaders often outpace their cognitive abilities. Indeed Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal (Reframing Organizations, 2003) speak of the “curse of cluelessness” that afflicts many leaders. These executives have great difficulty in “surrendering ingrained mental models instead of seeing old problems in a new light or finding more promising ways to work on perennial challenges.” They inevitably do more of what they know. In the end, irrational forces most often prevail. And more often than not, the companies they lead founder due to managerial error. (See Charan and Useem, 2002.)

Ah, improving management is the answer. Organizations will work splendidly if properly managed. The short answer is rarely. Executives and consultants draw on a variety of approaches to improve their organizations ranging from Six Sigma to Emotional Intelligence. But these approaches can easily become dogma, blinding us to other possibilities. There is always more than one way to respond to a problem or dilemma.

Leaders need to find new ways of seeing things. They have to create a coherent and compelling vision for the organization going forward. They need to articulate and communicate this vision so all their stakeholders (employees, board, vendors) can learn to shift perspectives when needed.

In devising his first telescope, Galileo discovered that each lens he added contributed to a more accurate image of the heavens. Similarly, successful leaders reframe until they have a solid understanding of the situation at hand. They do this by using more than one perspective, more than one “frame”. Bolman and Deal (2003) espouse the Four-Frame Model, comprising Structural, Human Resource, Political and Symbolic components. Each frame is powerful and coherent. Taken together, they enable us to “reframe”, to see the challenge or issue from multiple perspectives.

Research shows that the ability to use multiple frames is associated with greater effectiveness for leaders. When leaders are stuck and nothing is working, reframing is a powerful tool which coaches use to help executives initiate effective, meaningful and lasting change.

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