Let a thousand flowers bloom: why we need to be mindful of framework monoculture

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This blog was written by Jaimes Nel, Founder at Path Ventures - a design-led strategic consultancy that helps clients create change in business, social and natural ecosystems… View their StudioSpace profile here.

Innovation practices have gone mainstream as the technological transformation of our economies has put them just below the radar of consumer attention and dramatically increased the number of people working in innovation.

That expansion comes with increased interest, education and demand for repeatable, efficient processes that deliver repeatable returns on investment. Frameworks promising to deliver reliable results or make innovation more efficient have exploded and many innovation practices have specific frameworks as a key pillar of their process.

Organisations that build their practices around specific frameworks risk creating monocultures in which well-known approaches dominate and constrain innovation outcomes. The medium influences the message. When everyone uses the same medium, the diversity of our innovation activity reduces. We believe it’s important to be mindful of creating overly restrictive dependencies or weakening our capacity to judge exactly what’s needed for the purpose at hand.

This isn’t a clear-cut opinion. Path works with and develops frameworks as a matter of course in every project we do. Frameworks, models, patterns and theory are how we make sense of and organise intriguing ideas. This post isn’t an argument for or against frameworks. We want to develop a conversation about HOW we use them, and perhaps introduce a dissonant chord that makes us more mindful about the implications of our choices.

The first consideration we’re suggesting is whether to use a pre-existing framework, or develop one as a way to bring order to your thinking. A useful guide to this is the work of Glaser and Strauss on grounded theory in research. This perspective aims to develop theory from the ground up by paying attention to context. The likelihood that a framework emerging from context will be a better fit to your specific context is higher than that of a pre-existing one. Glaser and Strauss did see possibility for this approach to develop generally replicable theory, this is more nuanced than approaching every question tabula rasa. Fitness-for-purpose lies on a spectrum, with the trade-off that it can require more effort to reach the same point by building it yourself.

Efficiency is then our second consideration. An existing theory, matching the problem at hand, can bring considerable intellectual weight to a problem with a minimum of effort. Greater explanatory power, reached with less effort, is a considerable reason to utilise a framework. The balance here must be whether it truly brings enough additional insight, or reduces effort dramatically enough, to justify trading efficiency for fit.

A third consideration is collaboration and coordination. A framework can act as a common key, enabling distributed work against a shared reference point. Two teams referencing the same framework can work together without the overhead of developing a shared understanding. This is especially important at scale, where alignment is critical to achieving outcomes across teams. The trade-off here is that making the effort to develop a unique, shared perspective can be the creative force behind radically different outcomes. Coordination, alignment and standardisation have a potential dark side of uniformity.

The next criteria is one that raises a red flag from the start. This is reliability. Frameworks come with an implicit offer of industrialised outcomes, promising reliable results time after time. This is framework as process, and risks forgetting that creators have enormous influence on quality in innovation. In our experience, relying too heavily on a framework can create a passive expectation of reliability, instead of reflexive judgement about the quality of the outcome. If you aren’t ready or able to throw out the parts of a framework that aren’t helping to create quality outcomes, you are in trouble. The map is not the territory.

Finally, frameworks are undoubtedly an accelerant for anyone learning a new domain or practice. They can open new perspectives, illuminate shadows and add rigour to our thinking on a new topic. The trade-off of this benefit is that without reflexivity, they can also carry unnecessary weight, add theory that is not relevant to the purpose at hand, and create a completionist impulse that’s not justified by the benefit delivered.

There are clearly benefits and trade-offs to working with frameworks. We believe we should make conscious decisions about their use, and be mindful of whether they are creating dependencies and rigidities that are difficult to back out of. The drawbacks of those dependencies are very real. The optimal use of a framework is to accelerate learning, establish scaffolding or define fit-for-purpose outcomes, not drive pre-defined processes.

Fit-for-purpose is a higher order consideration than adherence to standards, and creative judgement about the work should override compliance to a pre-existing framework. Our approach is to treat frameworks as patterns to be used, adapted and incorporated into fit-for-purpose outcomes, rather than as repeatable processes to complete.

Doing this at scale whilst retaining interoperability isn’t as easy as adopting standardised processes. Diversity, creativity, autonomy and emergence are important enough in innovation that the effort is justified. The creative value in letting a thousand flowers bloom is worth it to avoid a monoculture where we must use dominant frameworks simply for interoperability.

This post aimed to start a conversation about the criteria we can use to balance these considerations. To recap, we’re suggesting frameworks should be judged by their:

  • fitness-for-purpose
  • efficiency
  • collaborative power
  • explanatory power
  • speed to mastery
  • autonomy
  • adaptability

We hope this post has helped you think about when and how you make use of frameworks, and to be cautious about depending on specific frameworks, particularly at scale when the cost of change can result in reduced autonomy.

Frameworks have an important role in democratising knowledge, supporting collaboration and accelerating outcomes, but not at the expense of creative, fit-for-purpose outcomes that make a compelling difference. Like any creative rules, learn them but more importantly learn to judge when you should break them.

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