View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Reframing the World

The main thrust of our High-Performance Management class is the notion of frames. Roughly speaking, these are ways of viewing a given situation. The book assumes four frames: the structural, the human resource, the political, and the symbolic. Each has a metaphor. Structure is the workplace as factory; Human Resource represents a family; Politics is, naturally, a jungle. And Symbolism means the company as theater, or even temple. The notion is that all four frames are valid for given situations, and sometimes, a particular situation may be seen from two or even three frames. While our individual temperments may favor one frame, we're better managers if we can learn to think in all four.

I think these frames can also be profitably applied to world affairs. We Americans are really good at structure, and it's probably one of the things that led to the League of Nations and then to the UN. If we could properly impose a set of working relationships on the world, we could outlaw war, banish poverty, and the Cubs might even win the World Series. The structural frame has limitations, though. It can be sabotaged, manipulated, and overrun by other forces. It works better with things that with people, and while necessary, it's hardly sufficient. You see this in the naive way that some suggest that we should have had the UN indict Saddam for war crimes. It's meaningless on its own; only the power, or politics, or going in and getting him would succeed, while even the proponents of this view concede that its strength comes from its symbolic power.

We're also not so bad at the symbolic frame, at least some of us aren't. We tend to understand our own symbols pretty well, and sometimes we even grasp what we symbolize to the world. When we do, we're at our best. President Bush landing on the carrier spoke to us. The actual liberation of Iraq spoke to the world. But we also fail to recognize the symbols that our enemies use. We may hate Osama bin Laden. I do. But in the first days after the attacks, the airwaves were full of faux experts purporting to understand just what this, that, or the other phrase meant. Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon was a structural and political move to Israel. But it was a powerful symbol to Hizbollah that they were winning.

I think we routinely tend to make two miscalculations, though. We underestimate the political frame, letting countries like France manipulate the diplomatic process to frustrate us. We also overestimate the value human resources frame. Madeline Albright personifies this mistake, when she claims that "povery, ignorance, and disease" are our real enemies in the war on Islamism. There's a place for the HR frame, when you're trying to help a country feed itself, for instance. But by and large the world out there is not a family, and people would just as soon try to take care of themselves.

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