Frameworks and Their Utility

A good framework can provide enormous guidance when faced with a situation where there is no clear path forward. By allowing you to ‘hang’ and organize ideas a good framework can help you focus your design, too.

A good closet not only stores your clothes, it organizes your wardrobe. The same can be said for a good framework.

A framework is a means to structure thinking, data, and organization of your work when there is uncertainty. Not surprisingly, frameworks are used a lot in design, innovation and evaluation work. Let’s look at what a framework is, does, and how (and when) to use them in shaping your design or innovation.

A Framework Quality Framework

A recent article by David Gray in the MIT Sloan Management Review profiled some evaluative criteria for assessing frameworks. These criteria include:

  1. Comprehensiveness: Does it reflect the breadth of the domain you operate in?
  2. Utility: Does it provide useful insight and guidance?
  3. Validation: Is it supported by empirical sources of verification?
  4. Clarity: Is it easy to understand?
  5. Memorability: Can you remember and apply it easily?
  6. Integration: Does it come together well — is it coherent?
  7. Differentiation: Does it allow users to see things in new ways?

I’ve been interested in this because frameworks can be a minefield in terms of quality and usefulness. Could this evaluation framework be the solution that many need to assess the use of frameworks?

It might, but I’d argue for a few changes if we are to consider applying this thinking to human systems. (I think Gray’s criteria might be best suited for engineered systems).

Usefulness and Frameworks

I have no issues with any of the seven criteria as listed, however, I don’t see all criteria as equal or necessary in practice. Rather, I think there are issues with making these come alive in a practice, design-driven manner that can enhance their utility — which I see as the most important criteria.

Usefulness is the principal criteria in assessing any framework (in my opinion).

Usefulness in a framework means that it ought to allow for differentiation and be clear. Only a framework that is simple to understand and apply will provide value consistently. For example, I consider the Cynefin Framework to be among the best out there for its simplicity, flexibility (to different situations), appropriateness and overall utility in sensemaking. It’s simple enough yet captures enormous variations in circumstances in an easy to use form. It’s one of the reasons it’s so widely popular. It can also be explained in simple terms and in less than 5 minutes (see below).

Thus, flexibility and the ability to accommodate and adapt to different circumstances is another feature of criteria I’d like to use.

While Cynefin is based on evidence, it wasn’t created as an evidence-driven framework. Its value has been shaped by its utility and practical implementation. It is flexible, adaptive to context, and complexity-friendly. There are many other frameworks on other topics that have a far larger amount of research underpinning them, yet remain awkward and cumbersome to apply.

While comprehensiveness is another criteria that has benefit, in many areas of human systems and complexity we have little idea of what this means. I can’t say what the comprehensiveness would be for many topics. It’s not a criteria I’d suggest using.

While Integration is important for many topics, I’d recommend changing it to coherence. A framework must create a sense of coherence out of what we see, gather, and the patterns out there. Otherwise, it doesn’t organize. Coherence is also something that allows us to make sense of what we learn and see — making the framework more dynamic.

Framework Evaluation Criteria

Lastly, I’d also suggest that a good framework allows for evaluative criteria to be generated through it. You ought to have an idea of what a useful development process, outputs, outcomes, and possible impacts are from the framework. A good framework shapes thinking as well as the production that comes from that thinking. In innovation contexts the evidence may not be there, but the possibility to evaluate what’s done must be. Great frameworks are inherently use-friendly.

So what are my revised criteria?

  1. Coherence: Produces coherence in data, values, processes, and meaning
  2. Evaluative: Encourages and generates criteria that can be evaluated
  3. Utility: The framework is clear, useful, and can be practically applied to generate value easily.
  4. Responsive: The framework allows for dynamic, flexible accommodation to circumstances and situations without losing its integrity.

What do you think?

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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