In part 1 of the series, I introduced Sense-Framing as an integrated mental model that helps us map our relationship to context.
Sloppy Thinking is a form of partial navigation of the framing models. Such incomplete journeys hinder our learning experience and limit our perception of the world. Without the skill to commit to the full ride, we lose the ability to identify insights and integrate divergent perspectives. Ideas begin to clash, change is blocked, and connections between people are severed.
Sense-Framing is a dynamic process, using diverse (Sensegiving, Sensebreaking) and inclusive (Sensemaking, Sensesharing) Feedback Loops. We use these loops to find balance within the frame and reinforce our relationship to the world.
In this part, I want to address five key challenges of working with frames. I will show how we can dissolve conflicts through revision and reframing rather than making radical and costly decisions.
#1 – Make room for growth in the initial blueprint
How do you begin working with a frame? You have two choices: you either create a new one from scratch or choose one available. Either way, frames need to align with our goals and intentions.
What happens when frames clash with our views and instead of aligning, we face obstacles that stop us from making progress? When we encounter incompatible frames, tensions arise:
The frame on Columbus is a case in point: He was a discoverer and an inspiration in the eyes of Colonialism and the American Revolution, but for the Anti-Colonialism sentiment and the American Civil War, celebrating him meant celebrating a slave trader. The two camps could never reconcile because they had different goals and value systems.
Sense-Framing treats all input as valid, but it relies on our ability to experience and clarify the context. If we don't keep an open mind and enable our frame to support change, our goals may never come to fruition. Rather than building an extensive model to account for any scenario, we can design gaps in the frame to adjust to any change with lesser fears and worries.
Making room for growth comes with benefits:
we see things differently and, therefore, we are not so quick to take sides
we can integrate clashing views and dissolve conflicts creatively without having to defend the frame
We initially presented discovery at the time of Columbus as transactional. Transactional meant that he and other explorers had very little responsibility for their discoveries. The question is, does this view still hold? A lot has changed since then. What if we make room for growth in the initial frame? Will we be able to revise the clash neither camp sought to fix? Let's find out.
#2 - Keep the frame in motion
Flexibility in Sense-framing is very important because it allows us to learn and revise our perceptions and beliefs. If the frame is not constantly revised, it solidifies into a static view of reality. In other words, we stop recognizing change take the distorted frame for granted.
We can see both Columbus and the meaning of discovery differently if we put the frame in motion. The Initial Frame (Age of Discovery) was based on two immovable ideas:
The world is waiting to be discovered, and Europeans have the means to do so.
Fame and riches are for those who take the leap.
The New World quest by Columbus and his peers was driven by wealth, influence, and power. But in time, new lands were more than just a resource. They became a space to inhabit and protect. The Initial Frame didn't support such a change in the value system. People, who opposed European dominance, sought independence but not everyone wanted to revise the meaning of discovery before it caused more irreversible damage. It will take nearly 500 years before we began to advocate for the preservation of nature and communities:
"Discovery shouldn't cause damage to the land and the indigenous people; they are not disposable assets. It's everyone's responsibility to sustain life and let cultures flourish."
Why did it move so slow and took so long for humanity to recognize its mistake finally? There are few simple answers: We are still learning to act with care. We know for a fact that changing the value systems is hard. It takes time before everyone can accept a new belief.
We won't change our perspectives unless we are critical about the frames that guide us. In our case, the concept of discovery needed a transformation. It wasn't a means to an end but a journey of responsible action.
At this point, I want to introduce another character in the story: Alexander von Humboldt. Unfortunately for humanity, his work remained in the shadow for the past 200 years. But Humboldt's worldview can help us put the Initial Frame in motion and fill in the gaps.
#3. Being responsive ahead of being right
Sensemaking and Sensebreaking form a Critical Loop that helps us rewire and consolidate our beliefs. This loop is a constant work of adjustment towards our goals and is key to processing change and maintaining balance. How to navigate it effectively? We can start with what we know or what we can make sense of:
a. Sensemaking (the ability to stand one's ground while interpreting reality)
The power of connecting our experience to the frame resides in Sensemaking. It is the main tool that articulates ideas. However, it is highly dependent on the initial value system that it enforces.
The Age of Discovery and Columbus are great historical advancements that add to our legacy. Humboldt endorsed that. He was fascinated with Columbus, arguing that it wasn't the profit or the fame that led Columbus to discover America but his errors and miscalculations. According to him, Columbus was a real discoverer because he 'stumbled' into America.
Humboldt didn't believe in the entitlement of the discoverer but in the responsibility to care for nature and local cultures. Europe depended on the New World for resources and opportunities. It was not a transaction but a developmental exchange. He thought that treating the land and the people as resources was detrimental to both sides. But could others see what Humboldt saw? Not quite. Not yet.
Humboldt knew that dividing and discriminating the world is the effect of poor framing. Instead of correcting everything, he understood that human knowledge was full of errors and deliberately made room for them.
By doing so, he sought to change and reframe the mentality of the time.
b. Sensebreaking (the openness to reframe one's thinking to build new perspectives)
We use Sensebreaking to challenge the grounds on which ideas stand. But Sensebreaking is not only about pointing out flaws in the system. It's there to question our relationship to errors and one's fault in general.
Humboldt found a key weakness of the Western mentality: the hostility towards mistakes. He thought that a fragile relationship to errors impeded progress and change. So, instead of seeing errors as accidents or obstacles, they were openings and opportunities for extraordinary growth. Contrary to popular thinking, stretching logic and beliefs were valuable leaps.
Humboldt urged us to not only learn from our mistakes but, more importantly, learn how to make mistakes. He motivated others to make them on purpose to challenge the norm:
"...he added elements that "really" belonged neither to the space under discussion or even to the time period (…) inserted references to places that he himself had never seen. His systematic lists, in particular, contain such errors in their weave, which one can easily miss in a superficial reading."(Everything is interrelated)
How many people endorsed Humboldt's relationship to errors? Unfortunately, not many. And how many people are following his advice? Even less. Now, after 200 years, we are at a pivotal point on our critical loop. More and more people begin to see the value of this shift (design and systems thinking, fail fast and often fail cultures, growth mindset, etc.).
#4. Right timing vs. relevant goals
Sensegiving and Sensesharing form a Timing Loop. However, they are, in fact, the same things, just that they happen at different points in the loop. Through the loop, we build momentum for our frame and align it to the present worldviews. It creates a kind of ripple effect that does two things: connecting or disrupting. It is where scale begins to matter and where innovation becomes the norm.
a. Sensegiving (the awareness of the raw information flow)
Humboldt saw things from a rare angle, not outside the frame, but rather detached from it. Everything is a part of the unseen net that bound life to a delicate ecosystem:
"Everything is interrelated[...] a totality in continuous motion, held together not by a homogeneous structure but by a fractal one. The whole shines through in each "fragment."
He was aware that not everyone shared his views. That's why his lifetime work reflected an experimental mindset that saw the world without a rigid frame. This innovative practice was met with resistance even by those considered forward-thinking. It would take more than his lifespan before we would take on his advice.
b. Sensesharing (the drive to share who we are and what we have in common with the community)
Sensesharing is the unique imprint we leave in society. We all leave some mark, but not everyone is remembered. The process is selective and highly tied to network effects. Even the most valuable insight is background noise to a culture that is not ready to see it.
Is Humboldt as famous as Columbus? I’ll leave that open to debate.
"Unlike Christopher Columbus or Isaac Newton, Humboldt did not discover a continent or a new law of physics. Humboldt was not known for a single fact or a discovery but for his worldview. His vision of nature has passed into our consciousness as if by osmosis. It is almost as though his ideas have become so manifest that the man behind them has disappeared."― Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World.
Humboldt is a great addition to the systems thinking movement. He had a unique worldview and legacy. His discovery frame became a responsible act to build a legacy for future generations that anyone could benefit from. Perhaps, he was fully aware that not many will adopt his ideas at that time. It would take a while before humanity embraces the potential of errors, the need for holistic and open frames, and the acceptance of uncertainty.
#5. Don't underestimate the frame
The last of our challenges is warning advice on not taking any frame lightly.
We talk about slavery and colonialism as a thing of the past. We take climate change, inequality, and inclusion very seriously. But frame clashes often echo in unexpected directions, and their impact is not negligible. What do we need to know when working with frames to make sure we don't fall into their traps?
The lifespan of a frame
Plastics can take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to decompose. That might seem long, but compared to frames, it isn't. Frames can outlive us because they adapt to different contexts in time. As long as someone has a belief system compatible with that frame, they will adopt it so that the frame will persist.
Colonialism still exists, and some communities are being deprived of their rights even now. It's naive to say that once we create a new frame, the old ones will cease to exist. We need to learn to localize them and, if necessary, recycle them.
Frames are not clean slates
They are very messy. Because of that, we tend to build from scratch when things feel overwhelming. But starting anew doesn't guarantee our safety out of the problematic frame. Before we go for the apparent solution, we need to double-check if this is the best option for pursuing our goals.
Sense-framing is not a way to escape the system but a way to reform it from within and make it connect with the bigger picture. It begins by recognizing our attachment and exposure to the system. And, it also requires our creative power to innovate responsibly.
The value of chaos-sharing
If we want to work on systemic flaws, we must increase our ability to process change: we have to be willing to fail and make mistakes.
Humboldt was right to point out that a hostile attitude towards errors slows down progress. Seeing this aspect of error-making is vital to our future. But because we value order and structure, we block or dodge unregulated flows. Humboldt stressed that not everything fits into a structure, and chaos can be a great learning source. If we want to understand complexity and uncertainty better, we must increase our tolerance to chaos and learn to share it in its raw form.
We wouldn't be able to imagine life without frames, but, from time to time, it is worth challenging the norm. Let's see what discoveries await at the edge of the frame.
Part 3 of the series will follow soon!
Ottmar Ette & Translated by Vera M. Kutzinski (2010) Everything is interrelated, even the errors in the system: Alexander von Humboldt and globalization, Atlantic Studies
Wulf, Andrea (2016). The invention of nature. London: John Murray.