The power of defining things

Frame within frameI've got defining things on my brain lately.

I'm in the midst of reading The Power of the 2 x 2 Matrix by Alex Lowy and Phil Hood. They talk about the importance of getting the axes right, so that the conversation around the artifact proves beneficial. And in a couple examples, they show how the thinking can shift, depending on which topics you pick to be on the axes. For example, when looking at strategic options against the Value Proposition, what are the important variables? Is it Difficulty, or Cost, or Time Pressure? What is important today may not be important tomorrow, so this has to be part of the strategic thinking.

Another way to think about this is framing. How do you frame a discussion or problem? This has a lot to do with what comes out the other side of the thinking. It's one reason organizations like to participate in industry consortia or to bring in outside consultants: they get the opportunity to see another way of looking at a situation. And sometimes that external view of the world helps define things in a way that they couldn't do before. It's one of the reasons I like to bounce ideas off my colleagues. Am I seeing things from the right perspective? Can you give me a different vantage point on the topic?

Mary Abraham does this reframing in her Are You a Force Multiplier?. Rather than the Urgent / Important dilemma that Covey created, what if you redefine what it means that something is "Important?" (Urgent is the time-pressure stuff: the phone ringing, the burning building, the person standing at your door.) But if you define "important" as things that create a lasting or building effect on the rest of your work, how does that change your thinking around how to organize the day? Does it help you to drop more of the low-importance things? This could be a nice way to help move away from all those small chores that we do because they are there. If they don't create added value, why bother?

Thierry de Baillon plays with definitions a bit in his Organizational Redefinition and the Pocket Calculator. He is thinking about pilot projects and how they often struggle to show benefit due to the way we conceptualize "the organization" that is participating. For projects where collaboration is key (knowledge management / enterprise 2.0 / social business / even project management), the organization and the style of collaboration is often the thing that needs to change. The tool is merely a supporting element of the change process. But when the organization does not change - the meaning of "organization" with all its structures and rules and hierarchies - then it may be difficult for the new mode of collaboration to bear fruit.

The other take on this is that defining things in the first place can be helpful. In a discussion today, someone remarked on the RACI (responsible, accountable, consulted, informed) framework for describing people's involvement. When these things are unclear, it is easy for people to get wrapped up in figuring out who does what. With the interactions defined, the work changes significantly. Or look at the act of creating a credible project plan: how are things connected, who is responsible? A definition is something people can work with. Without it they are often left juggling too many of the wrong things.

I see definitions and redefinitions all the time. Sometimes they are even useful in providing a new way of thinking about things. What new framing have you come across today?

[Photo: "Frame within frame" by Anthony Woo]

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