#41: Framework traps
The challenges of using 'systems' and 'complexity' concepts to build frameworks for problem solving.
I’m Luke Craven; this is another of my weekly explorations of how systems thinking and complexity can be used to drive real, transformative change in the public sector and beyond. The first issue explains what the newsletter is about; you can see all the issues here.
Hello, dear reader,
Big life changes tend to make me very nostalgic. Having recently changed jobs and being in the throes of a potential change of city, nostalgia abounds. This particular bout of reminiscence has seen me re-reading old work, particularly from my PhD days.
Back then, I was interested in the explosion of interest in attempting to integrate ‘systems’ and ‘complexity’ into conceptual models of food insecurity. Attempts to take a more systemic perspective are always admirable but don’t come without their risks and challenges. The more frameworks and models I read (there isn’t a shortage…!) the more it became clear that there were a number of common framework traps that limited their utility. My early thinking on framework traps appeared in this article, but I think it is still relevant today, particularly as people increasingly attempt to integrate ‘systems’ and ‘complexity’ into models of social change. The four big traps I identified are:
Underspecified holism. Underspecified holism involves creating a ‘map’ of a particular problem or concern without thinking through the affordances that the map offers to people who might want to use it. It often shows up in frameworks through loose visual representations of a system—commonly as boxes and arrows or as an iceberg—that seem self-evident but are too vague to be consistently actionable.
The listing trap. The listing trap involves acknowledgements that a particular problem or concern is “a complex mix of factors” that is then followed by a presentation of those factors that is tantamount to listing. The listing trap works to underemphasise the dynamic nature of the relationships present in a particular context and often (when paired with a hierarchical visual like an iceberg, for example) reinforces the view that change only moves in one direction.
Iterative deficit. Iterative deficit is the tendency for people to create a new model from first principles, rather than to build on and integrate what already exists. The irony here is that the result is multiple frameworks that operate in siloes, which discourages learning and synthesis. I suspect people are driven to recreate the wheel in part because of the impact of underspecified holism—it's hard for them to use the work that others have done.
Conceptual stretching. Conceptual stretching is where a systems framework is used to explain data that has been collected in ways that are patently nonsystemic, leading to a mismatch between the explanatory concepts used and the data collected. Stretching the concepts to fit the data often results in wide, flabby generalisations that are hard to disagree with (“it’s all connected”, “context matters”, “it’s a system”, etc.) but aren’t particularly interesting.
Now, many of these traps might seem unavoidable at least to some degree. Perhaps that’s true. But my sense is that increased awareness and reflexivity about the challenges of using ‘systems’ and ‘complexity’ concepts in framework construction is an important first step in conceiving responses to them. Just because the frameworks we create can—at times—feel underspecified, vague or amorphous does not make them operationally hopeless. So much is possible when we acknowledge and work within their limits. We need to put more emphasis on developing a language that enables us to have those conversations. Framework traps are just one component of that.
What I’m engaging with right now
A conversation between Yanis Varoufakis and Slavoj Žižek that covers some fascinating ground including questions like: What are the real potentials of the radical left today? How has global capitalism changed due to the pandemic? Will capitalism manage to cope with the ecological crisis?
The updated Living Standards Framework from the New Zealand Treasury, which continues to be at the bleeding edge of thinking around economic policy and has grown to better reflect culture and children’s wellbeing, including being more compatible with te ao Māori and Pacific cultures.
This story about how people started carrying pocket watches, suddenly knew what time it was all the time, began feeling the weight of the passage of time in their own lives, and then started throwing birthday parties!
A final thought
By the way: This newsletter is hard to categorise and probably not for everyone—but if you know unconventional thinkers who might enjoy it, please share it with them.
Find me elsewhere on the web at www.lukecraven.com, on Twitter @LukeCraven, on LinkedIn here, or by email at <email@example.com>.
"Systems change does not always require systems thinking" and the iterative deficit trap struck a chord for me: lately I've been trying to avoid to the people I work with the constant and inevitable overexposure to frameworks – I work the the agile space (consulting, teaching, coaching and all that jazz) and we definitely have a framework overload problem.
Yes, I can make you do a "fill-in-the-boxes" exercise with Cynefin in order to make you familiarize with complexity's principles, but what if I help you build your own map?
That goes partly against what you are saying (learning to use what's already there instead of working from first principles) but in my context - as a trainer and coach — I think that the usage of frameworks as a teaching tool is way, way overblown.
I am also very self-critical about the self-serving nature of a lot of business frameworks — "I'm an agile coach so let me explain you how Cynefin justifies the usage of agile practices and hence my consulting work" (which is an obvious case of what you call "conceptual stretching").