Models, Frameworks, and Theories (Oh, My!)

Models, frameworks and theories are meant to guide what we do, yet they can also obscure what needs doing. The peddlers of ‘ways to think’ need to start showing evidence that matches their enthusiasm.

I once got into a bit of an intellectual spat with an instructor of mine when I was completing my master’s degree in design. He claimed without context or hesitation that “we know design thinking works” and expressed some surprise that I would challenge that. He knew that I believed in the potential of design thinking and used it in my work.

I countered his point with: “What evidence do we have that design thinking works?” (I also added a question about “what is it mean to work?”) His claim was one that came from a designer. My counter reflected the perspective of an evaluator.

Anyone who’s read this blog knows that I think and advocate for more people to be both designers and evaluators.

I bring this story up because it reflects a tendency to espouse theories, models and frameworks without evidence that they do what is claimed.

What Do They Do?

There is what I say something does and what something actually does. Psychological and behavioural science tells us that what we rationally think or say and what we do doesn’t always match.

There is a relative paucity of scientific articles that profile the implementation of models, theories, and tools in the achievement of specific goals. By this, I mean a clear description of the model, the design of the intervention, and data that tracks both. On top of that, is there evidence that someone used the theory, model or framework as described?

What are the deviations or adaptations? Have they been described?

The more I look at the research literature, the less I see. When it comes to practice literature I see even less. Practitioners like designers tend not to ‘show their work’. So when I say ‘design thinking works’ you should know 1) what I’ve defined as design thinking, and 2) what I mean by ‘works’.

So what we have is a lot of mention of things and little of how those things were done and yet, lots of claims of what these things do.

Systemic design is another area where there is much description, little evidence. Systems thinking? Same thing. The list goes on.

Battling Less With More

As tools like Substack, Medium, and podcasts proliferate the publication of new ideas, models and tools we might hope to see more evidence. Instead? The opposite is true. I see more models, more tools, more frameworks, and less discussion of how they are used, what they do and what benefits are gained.

Theories, models, and frameworks can be enormously useful, but that means we need people to show their utility. I can’t simply say something is useful and that’s it. Yet, this is what we’re seeing in so many sectors. We are seeing more claims and more of everything instead of diving more fully into what we already have and showing real evidence of implementation, action, and effect.

Consider Frameworks, for example, that are useful if they meet four 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.

When have you seen this discussed when you hear someone claiming a new framework to solve [x]? Our social complexity, strategic complexity, and global challenges are as big, bold, ‘hairy’ as ever. We need new ways to think, work, and act and theories, models, and frameworks can help us. But to do this, we need to go beyond talk and to see more evidence in practice.

Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

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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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