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Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership (Review)

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"The text is broken into what the authors call frames, which are four distinct perspectives or mental maps from which to analyze an organization."


The posting below is a review by Shelley Nicholson* of the book, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership, by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal. 5th edition. Jossey-Bass, 2013. ISBN-13: 978-1118557389. The review is from Currents in Teaching and Learning, Vol.7, No. 1, Fall 2014. Currents in Teaching and Learning is a peer-reviewed electronic journal that fosters exchanges among reflective teacher-scholars across the disciplines. It is a publication of the Center for Teaching and Learning of Worcester State University, Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S.A. Copyright © WSU, 486 Chandler Street, Worcester, MA 01602.  All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis
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Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership (Review)

Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal, first published in 1984, is a classic organizational development text now in its 5th edition (2013). This text is timeless and, according to the authors' definition, has soul. I first encountered the book in a master's program for higher education; I then used the text again for my doctoral work in higher education with a focus on organizational change. I am now using the text to teach a masters level course in building multicultural organizations. To that point, the text itself is relevant across a variety of disciplines and is also relevant when examining for-profit and non-profit organizations. The book is useful no matter the lens through which the course is being taught, includ- ing diversity in organizations, leadership in organizations, or strategic change within organizations.

The authors have developed a companion website with lesson plans, videos, and activities to be used in the classroom or for corporate professional development. These companion resources allow for continuous updates regarding content and the opportunity for others to share their best practices. For a text with scant references to higher education, I cannot think of a more appropriate book to illustrate the complexities of higher education from the organizational perspective.

The text is broken into what the authors call frames, which are four distinct perspectives or mental maps from which to analyze an organization. The first frame is structural and the metaphor given for this frame is a factory or a machine. This is the skeleton or bones of an organization. The next frame, human resources, is given the metaphor of family as it relates to individuals and how they interact with one another to address their needs and wants. The political frame, characterized as a jungle, addresses power and conflict as well as the dangers of competing organizations. Finally, the last frame is the symbolic frame. This frame views an organization as a carnival or theater. The central theme of this frame is culture, inspiration, and the ability to make meaning of the organization. Taken as a whole the four frames can provide insight into the successes and failings of an organization and its leadership. In this sense, this book is as relevant today as it was when first published thirty years ago.

An unofficial fifth frame is not mentioned in the text, but has been put forth by others in the field such as Argyris and Schön (1974) and Benathy (1995), and that is the systems frame. This is the frame which ties all of the frames together and provides insights into how and why change happens within an organization. I would like to see this frame discussed by Bolman and Deal in a future edition of the text. Should the 5th edi- tion be the final edition, I hope other organizational theorists will pick up this thread and further weave the unofficial fifth frame into the ground-breaking work conducted by Bolman and Deal.

In regards to the original four frames, each frame provides a different lens through which to view an organization. The structural frame focuses on how to organize and structure groups for optimum performance while the human resource frame focuses on the satisfaction of human needs and how effectively to build group dynamics and positive interpersonal dynamics. The political frame addresses how to deal with power and conflict which arises both inside and outside the organization as a result of politics. One of the aspects which resonates well with our work in higher education is the discussion on the external political pressures an organization faces. This is equally true at state and private institutions. Finally, the symbolic frame provides insight into how culture is shaped within an organization. This is often something that is taken for granted and the
authors guide readers on how to deconstruct the culture of an organization from its origin story to its mythical or heroic figures. When utilizing this text to examine an organization, the symbolic frame provides the possibility of the richest qualitative data.

In each frame, the authors provide case studies and timely examples. The bulk of the updates to this text over time have been in the case studies and various organizations cited to illustrate concepts of organizational development. Over the years world events such as 9/11 and the Iraq War have been added, in addition to case studies on complex multinational organizations such as Microsoft, McDonalds, and Kodak. At the same time, other organizations once lauded as examples of the best in organizational management have been removed or deconstructed after their down fall such as Enron, Circuit City, and Saturn.

The text pulls from various disciplines including business, psychology, social and cultural anthropology, political science, and sociology to analyze what it takes to be a successful leader in a complex organization. One of the most profound and enduring aspects of the text is the section following the four frames which focuses on deconstructing leadership models in an effort to reframe them. In this last section, the authors discuss the assets and deficits brought to an organization through various leadership models as viewed through the four frames.

For visual leaners, the text contains several pictographs illustrating how the frames interact with one another. In addition, different types of management and leadership styles are represented through case studies, pictographs, and an authentic discussion on the myth of leadership. Leadership is also examined through the lenses of gender, race, and faith. Reframing organizational change is addressed in an effort to provide effective management strategies to overcome barriers or resistance to change. One area of emphasis which I found particularly interesting and helpful was the concept of organizations having spirit or soul. To view an organization as one would a living person provides a unique perspective to how an organization can thrive or fail: "Soul can always be viewed as a resolute sense of character, a deep confidence about who we are, what we are about, and what we deeply believe" (pg. 400). An example mentioned of an organization which demonstrates soul is a pharmaceutical company selling life-saving medication to over-exploited countries at a loss. There are also examples of those that demonstrate the opposite of soul such as the infamous Enron.

The authors also pull in various other perspectives on organizational development and experts in other fields throughout the text. These include insights into leadership from Peter Senge and Chris Argyris, as well as pioneers in human psychology and human relations such as Abraham Maslow and an examination of his hierarchy of needs. Also highlighted is Douglas McGregor and his Theory X and Theory Y, which provides a model for human resource management. Argyris and Schön (1974) are also highlighted for their theories in use and espoused theories and their relevance in understanding interpersonal dynamics at play within an organization.

While this text appears to be timeless, thanks in part to the author's willingness to issue subsequent editions of the book, I am left wondering who will be the next to carry on this work. Will this text endure for another three decades? I can only hope other scholars continue where Bolman and Deal have left off as orga- nizations continue to evolve and the need for strong leaders and facilitators of change continues. --


Argyris, C., & Schon, D. A. (1974). Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Benathy, B. (1995). Systems view of institutional change. AAAS Symposium on the Future of Education Delivery Systems.

* Shelley Nicholson is Director of Community Learning at the Center for Civic Learning and Community Engagement at Mount Wachusett Community College.