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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Reframing and the human coordination show

I make my living working for an organization that is used as a metaphor in business writing all the time – the symphony orchestra. Most of the time the orchestra metaphor is used as an example of a high functioning team made up of specialists in pursuit of excellence.

Sometimes it is pointed to as an example of the limits of hyper specialization and silos (because, for instance, the timpanist cannot offer much to the cellist in terms of solving playing problems and vice versa).

Today the metaphor is a little out of fashion and, as more than one observer has wryly noted, as a metaphor for organizations it is probably most enjoyed by those who see themselves as conductors of organizations. Nonetheless, as it relates to organizations I am pretty confident that the metaphor of the symphony orchestra will persist.


Because the show – the performance work that an orchestra does – is a pretty amazing feat of human coordination. It’s a stage full of people, putting years of training and practice on display in a complex and often dazzling dance of sound over time – all in order to tell a story together.

It really is, as I sometimes call it, ‘the human coordination show’. But behind the human coordination show of an orchestra are real organizations with all the challenges of complexity and human fumbling that any organization faces. Sometimes these organizations are high functioning, sometimes they are not.

I enrolled in NMI at a time when my organization was struggling mightily to function well. I wanted to better understand what was happening and how I might function better within it.

As part of one of my NMI classes the instructor brought in the books that she’d turned to time and time again throughout a successful career in the nonprofit sector. According to her, chief among these was "Reframing Organizations" by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal. It was a great class, and after it was over I got a copy of the book and read it. It made a huge impact on me. Not only did it help me better understand what was going on when my organization was struggling, it’s continued to be of great use to me even now, when my organization is thriving.

Here, in a nutshell, are the basic concepts.


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Bolman and Deal assert that every organization has four coexisting ways of being: their structure, their human resources, their political environment and their symbolic meaning. They call each of these a frame – a particular viewpoint of the organization and situations – and offer a metaphor to capture the essence of each frame.

  • The metaphor for the structural frame is ‘the organization as a factory’. Looking through this frame reveals who reports to whom and how the widgets get made. Problems arise when the structure is not suited to the situation or challenge at hand.
  • The metaphor for the political frame is ‘the organization as a jungle’. Looking through this frame we see where power is concentrated and various groups and individuals vying to set agendas and vying for limited resources. Problems arise when power is wielded unfairly, is concentrated in the wrong places or is too dispersed.
  • The metaphor for the human resources frame is ‘the organization as a family’.  Looking through this frame gives us an opportunity to ask and (hopefully) answer the question ‘what needs do workers have?’ The challenge is finding a way to get the job done while at the same time, finding a way for people to feel good about the work they are doing. 
  • The metaphor for the symbolic frame is ‘the organization as a temple or theater’ Looking through this frame we can ask ourselves, ‘internally and externally, what does the organization and its work mean?’ Problems arise when symbols lose their meaning or actors play their parts badly.

The thrust of Bolman and Deal’s work is that, beyond just being a handy way to categorize the various aspects of an organization, the frames are about actions – our actions within our organizations. The frames are a way for people to offer their best contribution to their organization by interpreting what frame a situation falls into and selecting the right tool or strategy for that situation.

Reframing then, is about examining a situation or problem with multiple lenses – or frames – in order to better understand and influence what’s really going on.

So that’s it in a nutshell. Organizations are complex and the four frames do not change that. Problems that have their roots in one frame can manifest and present in another. It can be confusing.  But the four frames do give us lenses to see our organization differently and break out of our habitual views. As Bolman and Deal say, framing and reframing is about giving people a palette with an array of options in order to be artists in the search for quality, commitment and creativity in organizations.

If you’re finding your organization confusing, wondering how it might function better or how you might better function within in it, try looking at things through the four frames. The picture may become a little clearer.

Alex Laing began studying the clarinet at age 11 in his hometown of Silver Spring, MD.
In 2002 he joined the Phoenix Symphony as Principal Clarinet.
Alex has garnered a number of awards and honors during his career including fellowships from the Tanglewood Music Center, the Aspen Music Festival and the New World Symphony. A graduate of Northwestern University, he received his master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music, an artist's diploma from the Sweelinck Conservatorium Amsterdam and, in 2012, a certificate in nonprofit management from the ASU Lodestar Center.


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