This post begins a new series on Psycholawlogy about understanding organizations.  A team of leading organization science scholars has developed a very useful model to understand the ambiguity and complexity of and influence the behavior of organizations.  The Four Frame Model of Bolman and Deal (2003) can help those interested to better understand and approach issues about organizational diagnosis, development, and change.  Those authors have synthesized management insight and wisdom and years of social science research from the disciplines of sociology, psychology, political science, and anthropology into a model which views organizations in four (4) images, i.e. frames captured by distinct [metaphors]:  structural [factories or machines], human resource [families], political [jungles], and symbolic [temples or carnivals, theatres].  Each frame equates to a mental model.  A frame, as imaged under this model, consists of ideas and assumptions which help the seeker of understanding register and assemble information into a coherent pattern.  This enables one to decipher those clues by getting a more comprehensive picture of what is happening and what to do.  It helps here to think of a frame as having several potential functions:  map, tool, lens, orientation, filter, prism, or perspective.  How does this relate to lawyers?

Most lawyers’ work involves organizations and their virtues and drawbacks in one way or another.  Organizations present concerns or challenges with issues involving complexity, surprise, deception, and ambiguity.  The Four Frame Model, often used by organizational development practitioners, can help attorneys and their clients decipher and clarify, focus, understand, and navigate legal matters which involve the usually complex and often ambiguous organizational landscape.  This post provides a basic introduction to a very useful model. This model can help lawyers gain a more comprehensive picture and better understand organizations, how they work, how they should work, identify development opportunities, and assist in evaluating the success or failure of change efforts.  Future posts on Psycholawlogy will build on this introduction and hopefully provide useful information and insight.  Why should we want to better understand organizations?

Organizations exist because we build them.  Organizations do many good things for us which we can not do for ourselves.  Most of us breathe our first air in a hospital.  Many last breaths occur there, too.  Schools educate us and universities train us for careers.  Many of us participate in community organizations or clubs.  Sports teams often play a part in our lives.  Business and government organizations affect us and we depend on them in many ways.  Organizations offer and provide goods, services, social services, health care, entertainment, and just about anything that we need, use, and enjoy.  We can call these things the “bright” side of organizations.

Organizations can have a “dark” side, too.  People get exploited and frustrated by organizations.  Patients suffer harm.  Products injure or kill users or innocent third parties.  Food and drugs sicken.  Water, air, and the ground can become tainted or polluted by chemicals.  Corporate greed and insensitivity happen sometimes, too.  On and on.  One goal of organization and management science has a simple premise:  manage organizations so that their virtues outweigh their vices.  Sometimes, though, organizations need a nudge or a push, either from within or from the outside.  Often, lawyers, whether as advisors or advocates or both, must appear and enter this arena.  Armed with better understanding and insight into how organizations work, from learning the basics of and applying the Four Frame Model, their efforts might more efficiently and effectively hit closer to the target.  Each frame captures an important piece of organizational life.  Each frame contributes to the entire picture.  In order to complete the picture, consideration of each of the four frames must occur.  Each of the four suggests areas or issues for attention and intervention.  The model’s design depends upon multi-frame thinking and application.  Only then – comprehensive framework encompassing four perspectives – can appreciation deepen and understanding increase.  The bright side can continue to shine and keep the dark side in the shadows.

The next part introduces each of the four frames and briefly discusses its associated metaphor, central concepts, and leadership challenges:

The structural frame focuses on the architecture of the organization.  This includes goals, structure, technology, roles and relationships and coordination of them.  Think organization chart here.  Responsibilities, division of labor, rules, policies, procedures, systems, and hierarchies which coordinate an organization’s diverse activities into a unified effort relate to this frame.  The challenge for organizations and their leaders involves designing, maintaining, and aligning structural forms with current circumstances, tasks, technology, the environment, and goals.  When structure does not line up, problems arise.  Reorganization or redesign may help remedy the structural misalignment.  Rational analysis leads to the development and implementation of work roles and tasks and the appropriate coordination and integration of individual and group efforts.  The metaphor for the structural frame:  factory or machine.

The human resource frame emphasizes understanding people and their relationships.  Individuals have needs, feelings, fears, prejudices, skills, and development opportunities.  This lens enables one to focus on and understand the fit between the individual and the organization.  By attending to people, the focus of this frame, the organization can meet individual needs and train the individual to meet organizational needs.  The job gets done by persons who feel good about themselves and their work.  The metaphor for the human resource frame:  family.

The political frame sees organizations as jungles, arenas, or contests.  This frame emphasizes power, competition, and winning scarce resources.  Diverse values, beliefs, interests, behaviors, and skills provides the rich context for the allocation of power and resources.  People set agenda, bargain, negotiate, build coalitions, compromise and coerce, and manage conflict.  Think competing interests, struggles for power, and who gets what and how.  Political skill and acumen craft solutions.  Such realities of organizational life can be toxic or sources of creativity and innovation.  Effective management and leadership guide the proper disbursement of power and influence and determine organizational effectiveness.  The metaphor for the political frame:  jungle.

The symbolic frame captures organizational life as drama and treats organizations as theatre, temples, or carnivals.  This frame focuses on meaning and faith.  This context engages the heart and head of the members and it focuses on ritual, ceremony, story, play and culture.  Members’ roles play out in the drama of everyday efforts of the organization.  Meaning matters more than results.  Events and processes have importance more for expression than production.  The faith built up and meaning shared by members infuses passion, creativity, and soul.  Rules, policies, and managerial authority matter less in this frame.  Instead, culture, symbols, and spirit provide this frame’s pathway to organizational effectiveness.  The focus of this frame challenges leaders to create and maintain faith, beauty, and meaning.  The metaphor for the symbolic frame:  theatre, temple, or carnival.

The four frames identified and briefly discussed above pave the way for reframing.  The Four Frame Model features reframing as a central theme.  With each of the four frames, the interested organizational observer can view the same situation in at least four ways.  Examples of situations include leadership, change, and ethics.  The developers of the model suggest reframing as their “basic prescription for sizing things up”.  Their model captures the subtlety and complexity of organizational life, but in a simple, useful format and useable process.

So, for lawyers, whether dealing with situations like Enron, Katrina, the Columbia and Challenger disasters, or tainted Tylenol, misfeasance, malpractice, or harassment or discrimination, for examples, the Four Frame Model can provide a new way to organize thinking and decipher the messy, complicated, complex, and ambiguous world of organizations and discover and enjoy new possibilities for reframing, a “powerful tool for gaining clarity, regaining balance, generating new options, and finding strategies that make a difference.”  Psycholawlogy thinks that the Four Frame Model can provide lawyers a gateway to more effective lawyering.  Hopefully, this brief introduction has sparked some interest.  Read on see how the Four Frame Model can become a useful tool on your lawyer tool belt.

Source:  Bolman, L, & Deal, T. (2003). Reframing organizations:  Artistry, choice, and leadership (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass [Chapter 1.].    See also.  Gallos, J. V. “Reframing Complexity: A Four-Dimensional Approach to Organizational Diagnosis, Development and Change.” In Gallos, J. V. (Ed.). Organization Development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006. Author Lee Bolman’s webpage here.

Image Credit:  The Jungle frame image courtesy of the wonderful travel blog Views Around The World – www.viewsaroundtheworld.comDay 98: the king of the jungle.  Access here.

Thank you.  Please visit again soon. Dan DeFoe JD, MS – Adlitem Solutions | Organization Development for Professional Services Firms and the Legal Profession: People. Projects. Practices | | | Blog  See you next time.

Dan DeFoe

Owner and Lead consultant at Adlitem Solutions
I'm an attorney with 20+ years of experience and have an MS degree in organizational development psychology. I provide normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, assessment interpretation and feedback, and professional development planning and training activities for lawyers, judges, other legal services providers, and their organizations.

6 Responses to Understanding Organizations Using the Four Frame Model: Factories or Machines [Structure], Family [Human Resources], Jungle [Politics], and Theatres, Temples or Carnivals [Symbols]

  1. Dereje Getahun says:

    Dear Dan DeFoe,
    Thank you for your article. I am looking for a guidance.
    I am MBA student and we were given a group assignment to do “Integrated Organizational Analysis” based on Bolman and Deal’s tool. Is there any standard tool for data collection? Some papers, I saw are using “Organizational Diagnosis Qustionnaire”. Is ODQ the right tool based on Bolman and Deal’s approach? If we are collecting data, who are the respondents? employees, managers or both?
    Thank you Dereje Getahun, from Ethiopia.

    • Dan DeFoe says:

      Hello and thank you for visiting Psycholawlogy. The Four Frames comprise a model. I am not aware of any separate or special stand-alone assessment tool. Check the link on my first post. At least 2 more posts about the Four Frames are on the way. Thank you again and please visit Psycholawlogy again soon. Dan DeFoe

  2. […] artful leaders look at the desired behaviors of the organizations they lead, and then build the structure, human relationship, power-bases and symbolism that will most likely result in those behaviors needed to achieve the vision and mission of the […]

  3. Nancy says:

    Hi Dan. Thank you for this page. I breaks down Bolman and Deal’s model in an easily understood concept. Nancy Hower -Master Psychology student (University of the Rockies).

    • Dan DeFoe says:

      Hi Nancy, check out the posts about structure and human resources frames. Political frame is next in the series. Thank you for visiting. Consider subscribing to my blog and newsletter, please. Thanks again and take good care.