Frameworks and Lenses

We recently had a discussion at Columbia’s Information and Knowledge Strategy program about consolidating, or at least coordinating, the various analytic frameworks that many of the faculty use in their work and teaching.

The consensus seemed to revolve around the idea that there is an optimal number of frameworks — that while too few leaves you with gaps in your perceptions, too many leaves you confused about which is “better”.

What is a framework?

A framework is a perceptual filter through which we see the world — in this case, the world of organizational behavior.  It’s a narrative overlay that integrates and orders disparate and dynamic elements of reality.  At best, it makes tangible that which is inherently intangible (“organizations” and “knowledge”, for example.)

A framework is like a lens that enables us to see what would otherwise be invisible.  Without such a lens, the world is a fuzzy undifferentiated mass — it’s nearly impossible to see clearly what is going on.  With a good framework, it’s possible to discern patterns — “shapes,” if you will — to diagnose what is awry, and even to predict what is likely to happen under certain conditions.

What about that lens analogy?

As a serious amateur photographer, I know the value of lenses.  When you’re starting with photography, you concern yourself most with the features of cameras themselves — how many megapixels does it display, does it have GPS and WiFi, and so on.

After you log substantial hours behind the glass, you realize that what really matters is the lenses.  A beginner will buy a lens almost as an afterthought.  An expert will notice subtle differences among similar lenses, and may even be able to tell which lens — but probably not which camera —  captured which image.  (In case you didn’t know, serious photogs don’t snap photos, they “capture images.”)

Canon 50mm lensAs you develop as a photographer, you often find that your needs and tastes change — even for what in some respects are interchangeable lenses.  A 50mm lens, for example, is a popular lens — it “sees” similarly to the human eye, and is so prevalent that it’s called a “normal” lens. It serves a range of needs, and is usually among the lenses you acquire first.  Most manufacturers make them, and some make several flavors.  Canon (my favorite vendor) currently makes four different 50mm lenses, each of which has its own characteristics and capabilities — and prices ranging from $125 to more than $1500.  As with so many things, you get what you pay for (at least to some extent.)

Why do you need more than one?

A beginner or outsider will wonder, “Why do you need more than one lens — all they do is gather light into the camera, right?”

Yes, Virginia, that’s essentially all they do — but in that, they make such a difference!  While you can even shoot without a lens (a “pinhole camera”), each lens adds its own flavor, color, sizzle, and excitement (or lack thereof) — while at the same time giving you a credible representation of what it is you’re shooting.

So why don’t I carry one of every lens from each manufacturer?  Obviously, I’d go broke — but also there is the weight factor of carrying them around when I hike the rivers and canyons of NYC and beyond.  Add to that the time factor (always a hidden cost) of learning what each can do and how to use it best.

Experienced shooters speak of a “holy trinity”, a set of three lenses that together enable you to do most things.  Everyone has his own favorite set, but typically they include lenses that cover a range of “focal lengths” (essentially, magnifications) — a wide angle, a “normal”, and a telephoto.  In other words, you ideally have a lens that enables you to best capture each photographic opportunity you’re interested in (portraits, landscapes, architecture, and so on.)

What makes a lens “good”?

All lenses must obey the laws of physics that govern photons and light — there is no negotiating these boundaries.  But some lenses do this more accurately than others.

Each lens has its own characteristic strengths, limitations, and biases.  Some excel at portraits, others at landscapes, others at extreme close-ups.

Even within a given quality and capability range, every serious shooter not only has his own favorite lenses — he also has his own criteria that determine his favorite lenses.  Some favor “sharpness” — the crisp, accurate delineation of what is being portrayed.  Others take a more “right brain” approach and favor the dreamy, impressionistic background certain lenses can render.

What makes a framework “good”?

Business frameworks don’t have the laws of nature to obey — but to some extent they do have to be plausible and “make sense”.  A good framework can be applied in real-life situations to yield insights and outcomes that are better (by some stated criteria) than what would have occurred without its use.  It “moves the ball” of understanding.

As with lenses, each framework has strengths, limitations, and biases.  While it can help you “see” what is there, it can also — often in a subtle way — prevent you from considering what is not in the framework.

As a lifelong consultant, I can tell you that most consultants secretly dream of creating a “hit” framework. I’m no exception — what could be better than helping your professional peers do their work?  The answer is, being widely known for so doing!  It’s as close to fame and glory as you’re likely to come in our field.

The “five forces” of business strategy

For example, Professor Michael Porter’s “five forces” is the current heavyweight champion of hit frameworks — cited extensively, loved by millions.  Is it correct?  It seems intuitively logical, yet (as with all business frameworks) its accuracy is not objectively verifiable, as it would be with a lens.  Does it help “illuminate” the nature of business strategy?  In many cases, yes.  Does it help solve real-world business problems?  In some cases, yes.

Five forcesWith little dispute is that it’s simple, memorable, and has a cool, alliterative name that, while indisputably modern, is at the same time evocative of medieval or even classical themes (like the “five rings” of 17th century samurai literature, or something out of J.R.R. Tolkien.)

The very fact that it is recognized worldwide makes it a touchpoint among both theorists and practitioners of management.  It’s a place to start strategy conversations (but not necessarily to finish them — but that’s another conversation in itself.)

The zillion or so other frameworks

But what about the many other frameworks that are not so universally known?  One of my consulting colleagues once sniffed dismissively that, “Well, everyone has a framework.”  Having created a few frameworks myself, I remember taking issue with him at the time over that ego-deflating remark.

But, you know, he was right.  Frameworks are an essential part of every consultant’s toolkit — and every consulting services marketer’s toolkit.  Most come with slick graphics and explanatory copy. And while many of them are well-researched and useful, too many others are neither.

If you’re a buyer or user of consulting services, please bear that distinction in mind.  Ask of each framework: (1)  Does it describe how things actually work? (2) Does it enhance our understanding? and (3) Does it help us solve our business problem?  Know in advance the strengths, limitations, and biases of each framework you’re using.

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