Reframing Organizations

            Buried deep within their book, Reframing Organizations, Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal come to the heart of the problem of management:  “Control is an illusion and rationality an afterthought….  Organizational life is always full of simultaneous events that can be interpreted in a variety of ways” (p. 266).  They key to accomplishing something that requires concerted action with other people is to reframe your perception of the situation to take into account the divergent perspectives of the various players.  “”Their frame—not yours—determines how they will act” (p. 270). 


PRINCE analysis (Coplin & O’Leary, 1972) is concerned with a single frame—yours—and a single process—power.  Breakthrough negotiation (Ury, 1991) is concerned with two frames—yours and your partners—but still mostly uses a single process—power.  Bolman & Deal are trying to balance multiple frames simultaneously, each with its own particular process.  On the other hand, Ury and Coplin & O’Leary provide fairly specific instructions for implementing your analysis.  Bolman & Deal are less specific in that regard.


Bolman & Deal identify four distinctive “frames” from which people view their world—Structural, Human Resources, Political, and Symbolic.  Each frame comes with a constellation of concepts, metaphors and values which provide the scaffolding for organizing raw experience of the world.  No one uses only one frame all the time, although people often show a preference for one or two frames.  The characteristics of the four frames are summarized in the following table:


Overview of the Four-Frame Model




Human Resource



Metaphor for Organization

Factory or Machine



Carnival, temple, theater

Central Concepts

Rules, roles, goals, policies, technology, environment

Needs, skills, relationships

Power, conflict, competition, organizational politics

Culture, meaning, metaphor, ritual, ceremony, stories, heroes

Image of Leadership

Social architecture




Basic Leadership Challenge

Attune structure to task, technology, environment

Align organizational and human needs

Develop agenda and power base

Create faith, beauty, meaning

Organizational Ethic





Leadership Contribution





Source:  Bolman & Deal (1997), p. 15 & p. 344


Not every framework works well in every situation.  As a change agent, you will find that all or most of the frames will be employed by the people you will be dealing with.  The “trick” to creating change in an organization (or a community or a relationship or….) is to figure out which frame offers you the best opportunity for focusing all the actors on a workable solution.  This means you are going to have to convince some people to change their frame of reference, at least when they are thinking and talking about the changes that are coming.  Once the situation or problem has been successfully reframed, you will need to help them reinterpret the new framework in terms of their preferred approach.  Think of it as a problem of water running in a streambed that is causing a problem.  The flow has to be disrupted so it can be redirected—where it will then settle down again into a stable channel.


Choosing a Frame


Frame if answer is Yes

Frame if answer is No

Are individual commitment and motivation essential to success?

Human Resource, Symbolic

Structural, Political

Is the technical quality of the decision important?


Human Resource, Political, Symbolic

Are there high levels of ambiguity and uncertainty?

Political, Symbolic

Structural, Human Resource

Are conflict and scarce resources significant?

Political, Symbolic

Structural, Human Resource

Are you working from the bottom up?


Structural, Human Resource, Symbolic

Source:  Bolman & Deal (1997), p. 271


The interesting thing about Reframing is that each of the frameworks has a way of formulating and expressing common organizational processes.  It is possible for people in the organization to talk all day about “strategic planning” and mean very different things.  If one assumes that one’s own framework is the common one, you can be sure you will be misunderstood.  It is important to identify the values and metaphors at work for the other participants, and speak to them in their terms if you are going to get them to support the change you desire.


Reframing Organizational Process




Human Resources



Strategic Planning

Strategies to set objectives and coordinate resources

Gatherings to promote participation

Arenas to air conflicts and realign power

Ritual to signal responsibility, produce symbols, negotiate meanings

Decision Making

Rational sequence to produce right decision

Open process to produce commitment

Opportunity to gain or exercise power

Ritual to confirm values and provide opportunities for bonding


Realign roles and responsibilities to fit tasks and environment

Maintain balance between human needs and formal roles

Redistribute power and form new coalitions

Maintain image of accountability and responsiveness; negotiate new social order


Way to distribute rewards or penalties and control performance

Process for helping individuals grow and improve

Opportunity to exercise power

Occasion to play roles in shared ritual

Approaching Conflict

Maintain organizational goals by having authorities resolve conflict

Develop relationships by having individuals confront conflict

Develop power by bargaining, forcing, or manipulating others to win

Develop shared values and use conflict to negotiate meaning

Goal Setting

Keep organization headed in right direction

Keep people involved and communication open

Provide opportunity for individuals and groups to make interests known

Develop symbols and shared values


Transmit facts and information

Exchange information, needs, and feelings

Influence or manipulate others

Tell stores


Formal occasions for making decisions

Informal occasions for involvement, sharing feelings

Competitive occasions to win points

Sacred occasions to celebrate and transform the culture


Economic incentives

Growth and self-actualization

Coercion, manipulation, and seduction

Symbols and celebrations

Source:  Bolman & Deal (1997), pp. 267-268


Bolman and Deal also provide similar analyses for Leadership:


Reframing Leadership




Human Resources



Effective Leader

Analyst, architect

Catalyst, servant

Advocate, negotiator

Prophet, poet

Effective Leadership Process

Analysis, design

Support, empowerment

Advocacy, coalition building

Inspiration, framing experience

Ineffective Leader

Petty tyrant

Weakling, pushover

Con artist, thug

Fanatic, fool

Ineffective Leadership Process

Management by detail and fiat


Manipulation, fraud

Mirage, smoke & mirrors

Source:  Bolman & Deal (1997), p. 303


And for the process of change itself:


Reframing Change




Human Resources



Barriers to Change

Loss of clarity and stability, confusion, chaos

Anxiety, uncertainty, feelings of incompetence, neediness

Disempowerment, conflict between winners and losers

Loss of meaning and purpose, clinging to the past

Essential Strategies

Communicating, realigning and renegotiating formal patterns and policies

Training to develop new skills, participation and involvement, psychological support

Creating arenas where issues can be renegotiated and new coalitions formed

Creating transition rituals:  mourning the past, celebrating the future

Source:  Bolman & Deal (1997), p. 321


Your job, then, as an analyst and a potential change agent is to determine:

While the work here is in the conceptualization, a checklist can help with the process.




© 2000 A.J.Filipovitch
Revised 11
March 2005