Sensemaking and the Structural Frame SLP

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In the Module 1 SLP, you will write a 3- to 4-page paper in which you will apply the Structural Frame to the organization in which you are currently employed (or in which you have worked previously).

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Overview of the LED599 SLP Sequence

Before we begin the Module 1 SLP, two very important and related points should be emphasized, as they are fundamental to an understanding of the Module 1 SLP:

  1. All four frames can be used to assess any given organization, because all organizations have structural, human resources, political, and symbolic characteristics; and
  2. Different leaders use lenses – or frames – through which they view their organizations. Certain leaders will tend to use one frame predominantly, while others tend to be more balanced, choosing one of the frames depending on the circumstances. The important point here is that there is no “right” frame through which a leader should or must view any given organization or any particular set of organizational circumstances. At the same time, it is helpful for a leader to understand which frame (or frames) he/she is actively using. It is also critical that leaders be aware that there are four frames – not one – and that the use of others may be beneficial to effective sensemaking as well (importantly, this helps leaders to better avoid organizational “blind spots”).


The Module 1 SLP requires that you write a 3- to 4-page paper, in which you address the following:

After you briefly describe the organization in which you presently work – or in which you have previously worked – apply the Structural Frame to the organization, analyzing the effectiveness of two or three structural characteristics you have identified.

Keys to the Assignment

The key aspects of this assignment that should be covered in your paper include the following (note there are two parts to this SLP):

Part 1:

In a minimum of two pages:

  • Briefly describe your organization – name, what it does, size (number of employees, annual revenue, relative market share, etc.);
  • Describe the organizational design of your chosen organization. Is it effective? Why or why not?
  • Choose 2 or 3 structural characteristics of your organization (e.g., strategic planning process, goals, objectives, policies, procedures, rules, budgets and other allocation of resources, etc.); and
  • Discuss the relative effectiveness of the structural characteristics you have identified. If you were CEO of your company, what (if anything) might you do differently? Why would you make any changes you suggest?

Part 2:

  • Complete the Leadership Orientations Questionnaire, and score your results.
  • In a minimum of two pages:
    • Report your scores for each of the Four Frames.
    • After you have completed an in-depth self-assessment of your scores, discuss how your scores inform your personal leadership style. For instance, what do your scores (high and low) collectively suggest about your leadership tendencies and about the ways in which you personally make sense of organizational events?Might your low scores indicate areas in which you may have leadership “blind spots”?

Background Information

Welcome to Module 1 of LED599: MSL Integrative Project (capstone course). Over the sequence of this course, you will be completing four individual Case assignments, which will culminate in a 20- to 25-page session-ending thesis-style paper. We begin the Module 1 Background page by stating the requirements for the formatting of this final paper.

Part 1: Session long thesis style paper – Formatting requirements

So that you are familiar with the requirements for submitting the final 20- to 25-page thesis-style paper, following are formatting requirements (these will be restated in Module 4):

  • Use of proper APA Style of organization, formatting, referencing, and writing is required. See the APA Sample Paper and other formatting requirements at the Purdue OWL:…
  • The final thesis-style paper will include the following sections: Title Page, Table of Contents, and References.
  • The final paper will consist of four (4) titled chapters (as written during the Module 1-4 Case sequence).
  • The body of the final paper must be a minimum of 20-25 pages in length (not including title page, references, etc.).

Part 2: Required Readings

In this initial module of the MSL capstone course, we introduce the Bolman and Deal Four Frames Model. We will also be reviewing the notion of sensemaking, given that sensemaking serves as a very good theoretical backdrop/ underpinning for our use of the Four Frames. Bolman and Deal suggest that leaders interpret organizational events differently because their perspectives are dependent upon the frame or frames they are actively using. Different leaders rely on different “frames.”

Bolman and Deal’s Four Frames is a widely-acclaimed theoretical model that is grounded in the notion of sensemaking. In his seminal 1995 book Sensemaking in Organizations (* footnote 1), Karl Weick says the following: “The concept of sensemaking is well named because, literally, it means the making of sense. Active agents construct sensible, sensable (** footnote 2) events. They ‘structure the unknown’” (Weick, 1995, p. 4).

[1] Source: Weick, K.E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

[2] The spelling of the adjective “sensable” is not a typographical error. The spelling of the word “sensable,” derived from Huber and Daft (1987), is intended to refer to how events are perceived – i.e., how they are “sensed” by onlookers. Therefore, a “sensable” event may or may not be reflective of reality, but is descriptive of how events are perceived by individuals viewing and/or affected by them).

Because our world is increasingly complex, chaotic, and mutable, we need ways of making sense of it. Weick says that sensemaking is itself the process by which people structure the unknown. Of course, our need to make sense of things occurs on multiple levels; in organizations, sensemaking is a process that occurs at the individual, group, and organizational levels. More recently, Weick et al. (footnote 3), have said that sensemaking allows for clarity of the “situation [such that it] is comprehended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard into action” (p. 409). Stated in plain terms, when we can’t clearly explain what is happening, it’s more likely than not that we don’t have a good understanding of what is really going on!

[3] Source: Weick, K.E., Sutcliffe, K.M., & Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the process of sensemaking and organizing. Organization Science, 16(4), 409-421.

The following excerpt, adapted from pages 24-27 of Bolman, L.G. & Deal, T.E. (2003). Reframing organizations: artistry, choice, and leadership (3rd ed.), helps to answer the question: Why should we be concerned with organizational sensemaking?

Human organizations can be exciting and challenging places. That is how things are usually depicted in management texts and corporate annual reports. But they are just as likely deceptive, confusing, and demoralizing. It is a mistake to assume that an organization is either a snake pit or a rose garden (Schwartz, 1986). Managers need to be mindful of several natural characteristics of life at work that create opportunities for the wise as well as traps for the unwary.

First, organizations are complex. They are populated by people, whose behavior is notoriously hard to understand and predict. Interactions among diverse individuals and groups make organizations even more complicated. Larger organizations have a bewildering array of people, departments, technologies, goals, and environments. The complexity is compounded with transactions across multiple organizations. Almost anything can affect anything else in collective activity. Permutations produce complex, causal knots very hard to disentangle.

Second, organizations are surprising. What you expect is often dramatically different from what happens. The solution to yesterday’s problems often creates future impediments to getting anything done. It may even create new possibilities for disaster. What goes around often comes around, to the detriment of an organization’s well-being. Taking action in a collective enterprise is like shooting a wobbly cue ball into a large and complex array of self-directed billiard balls. So many balls careen in so many directions that it is impossible to know how things will eventually sort out.

Third, organizations are deceptive. They defy expectations and then camouflage surprises. It is tempting but too easy to blame deception on individual character flaws or personality disorders. Subordinates legitimately fear that the boss will not listen or might punish them for being resistant or insubordinate. One person put it simply: “Communications in organizations are rarely candid, open, or timely.”

Fourth, organizations are ambiguous. The sum of complexity, unpredictability, and deception is rampant ambiguity. Figuring out what is really happening in businesses, hospitals, schools, or public agencies is difficult. Even if we think we know what is happening, it is hard to know what it means or what to do about it. When you incorporate additional organizations—or cultures—into the human equation, the level of ambiguity quickly becomes overwhelming. Ambiguity originates from a number of sources. Sometimes information is incomplete or vague. The same information may be interpreted in a variety of ways. At other times, ambiguity is deliberately created to hide problems or avoid conflict. Much of the time, events and processes are so complex, scattered, and uncoordinated no one can fully understand—let alone control—what is happening.

Adapted from McCaskey (1982), Bolman and Deal list some of the most important sources of organizational ambiguity as:

We are not sure what the problem is. Definitions are vague or competing, and any given problem is intertwined with other messy problems.

We are not sure what is really happening. Information is incomplete, ambiguous, and unreliable. People disagree on how to interpret information that is available.

We are not sure what we want. We all have multiple goals that are unclear or conflicting. Different people want different things. This leads to political and emotional conflict.

We do not have the resources we need. Shortages of time, attention, or money make difficult situations even more chaotic.

We are not sure who is supposed to do what. Roles are unclear, there is disagreement about who is responsible for what, and things keep shifting as players come and go.

We are not sure how to get what we want. Even if we agree on what we want, we are not sure (or we disagree) about how to make it happen.

We are not sure how to determine if we have succeeded. We are not sure what criteria to use to evaluate success. Or if we do know the criteria, we are not sure how to measure the outcome.

In this table adapted from Bolman and Deal’s Reframing Organizations (2003), commonplace organizational activities are viewed in the context of four frames – these are the Structural, Human Resources, Political, and Symbolic frames. Bolman and Deal say that “any event [in this table] can be framed in several ways and serve multiple purposes. Planning, for example, produces specific objectives. But it also creates arenas for airing conflict and becomes a sacred occasion to renegotiate symbolic meanings” (Bolman & Deal, 2003, p. 305).

Table 1: Four Interpretations of Organizational Process (pp. 306-7) ***


Structural Frame

Human Resources Frame

Political Frame

Symbolic Frame

Strategic planning

Creating strategies to set objectives and coordinate resources

Gatherings to promote participation

Arena to air conflict and realign power

Ritual to signal responsibility, produce symbols, negotiate meanings

Decision making

Rational sequence to produce right decision

Open process to produce commitment

Opportunity to gain or exercise power

Ritual to confirm values and create opportunities for bonding


Realign roles and responsibilities to fit tasks and environment

Maintain a balance between human needs and formal roles

Redistribute power and form new coalitions

Maintain an image of accountability and responsiveness; negotiate new social order


Way to distribute rewards or penalties and control performance

Process for helping individuals grow and improve

Opportunity to exercise power

Occasion to play roles in shared drama

Approaching conflict

Maintain organizational goals by having authorities resolve conflict

Develop relationships by having individuals confront conflict

Develop power by bargaining, forcing, or manipulating others to win

Develop shared values and use conflict to negotiate meaning

Goal setting

Keep organization headed in the right direction

Keep people involved and communication open

Provide opportunity for individuals and groups to make interests known

Develop symbols and shared values


Transmit facts and information

Exchange information, needs, and feelings

Influence or manipulate others

Tell stories


Formal occasions for making decisions

Informal occasions for involvement, sharing feelings

Competitive occasions to win points

Sacred occasions to celebrate and transform the culture


Economic incentives

Growth and self-actualization

Coercion, manipulation, and seduction

Symbols and celebrations

Table 2: Choosing a Frame (p. 310) ***


If yes:

If no:

Are individual commitment and motivation essential to success?

Human resource; symbolic

Structural; political

Is the technical quality of the decision important?


Human resource; political; symbolic

Is there a high level of ambiguity and uncertainty?

Political; symbolic

Structural; human resource

Are conflict and scarce resources significant?

Political; symbolic

Structural; human resource

Are you working from the bottom up?

Political; symbolic

Structural; human resource

*** [3] Source: Bolman, L.G.& Deal, T.E. (2003). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership (3rd ed.). San Francisco: John Wiley.

This chapter from the National Defense University serves as an informative discussion of the relationship between sensemaking, framing and frames, and Bolman and Deal’s Four Frames Model:

Framing Perspectives. (n.d.). National Defense University. Retrieved on May 2, 2014 from…

Here is an excellent slide presentation/ overview of the Four Frames:

Vincent, P. (2014). Four-frame model: Reframing organizations. Slideshare. Retrieved on May 1, 2014 from…

Next, read the following excerpt from Bolman, L.G. & Deal, T.E.(2003). Reframing organizations: artistry, choice, and leadership (3rd ed). San Francisco: John Wiley. Note the assumptions of the Structural Frame, as you will use these to guide the writing of your Module 1 Case:

Assumptions of the Structural Frame

The assumptions of the structural frame are reflected in current approaches to social architecture and organizational design. These assumptions reflect a belief in rationality and a faith that the right formal arrangements minimize problems and maximize performance. A human resource perspective emphasizes the importance of changing people (through training, rotation, promotion, or dismissal), but the structural perspective champions a pattern of well-thought-out roles and relationships. Properly designed, these formal arrangements can accommodate both collective goals and individual differences.

Six assumptions undergird the structural frame:

  1. Organizations exist to achieve established goals and objectives.
  2. Organizations increase efficiency and enhance performance through specialization and a clear division of labor.
  3. Appropriate forms of coordination and control ensure that diverse efforts of individuals and units mesh.
  4. Organizations work best when rationality prevails over personal preferences and extraneous pressures.
  5. Structures must be designed to fit an organization’s circumstances (including its goals, technology, workforce, and environment).
  6. Problems and performance gaps arise from structural deficiencies and can be remedied through analysis and restructuring (Bolman & Deal, 2003, pp. 44-45).It is important to recognize that the Structural Frame is theoretically rooted in the scientific management works of individuals like Frederick Winslow Taylor, Henri Fayol, Max Weber, and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth.

Dr. Jacobs’ slide presentation is a wonderfully comprehensive overview of the Structural Frame:

Jacobs, R.M. (n.d.). Theories of practice: The structural frame. Villanova University. Retrieved on May 8, 2014 from

Elaine Westbrooks’ excellent presentation on the Structural Frame follows here (be sure to review the embedded videos as well as the slides):

Westbrooks, E. (2012). Reframing organizations: The structural frame. Prezi. Retrieved on May 4, 2014 from…

Part 3: Optional and Session-Long Resources (these optional resources relate to Sensemaking and to Frames and Framing; you may want to refer back to these readings in future modules):

In this excerpt, the authors of the Four Frames Model – Bolman and Deal – discuss the tendency for modern organizations to resemble feudal hierarchies, in the sense that today’s organizations also have their versions of monarchs, lords, and serfs:

Bolman, L.G., & Deal, T.E. (n.d.). Monarchs, lords, and serfs. Lee Retrieved from…

Here is a very good presentation on the origins of the structural perspective/ lens, structural tensions, and structural imperatives (“must-haves”):


In this well-written and highly informative chapter of her book on leadership, Dr. Joan Gallos makes clear the relationship between sensemaking and use of Bolman and Deal’s Four Frames Model:

Gallos, J.V. (2008). Making sense of organizations: Leadership, frames, and everyday theories of the situation. In Joan V. Gallos (Ed.), Business Leadership: A Jossey-Bass Reader (161-179). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from…

In this journal article, Weick et al. observe how sensemaking relates to organizing:

Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., & Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the process of sensemaking. Organization Science, 16(4), 409-421. Retrieved from ProQuest.

The following book chapter is an excellent reading on sensemaking:

Ancona, D. (2011). Sensemaking: Framing and acting in the unknown. In Scott A. Snook, Nitin N. Nohria, and Rakesh Khurana (Eds.), The Handbook for Teaching Leadership (3-19). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Retrieved from

Here is the final report from the Command and Control Research Program’s (CCRP) Sensemaking Composium. This report is military-based, and includes discussion of such key (and related) constructs as “situational awareness” and individual and organizational sensemaking:

Leedom, D.K. (23-25 Oct. 2001). Final Report, from Sensemaking Symposium. Command and Control Research Program (CCRP), Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence. Retrieved from…

The following is a well-written, informative article that defines the concept of sensemaking, and describes how sensemaking is “both an individual and a social activity” (Social section, line 1) that is related to identity construction:

Marshall, T. (n.d.). Sense-making. The Atlas of New Librarianship. Retrieved on April 30, 2014 from…

Frames and Framing

Remember that the four frames are present in every organization, no matter its size or type. Importantly, while each one of us has a preference for certain frames over others, no one frame is “best” – optimally, we will view the organization through the use of all four frames simultaneously, or through multi-frame thinking. While the use of a multi-frame approach may be challenging in practice, the use of a single frame is not only limiting, but it can even be misleading. For example, when an organization’s leadership places sole reliance on the Symbolic Frame, the importance of structure, or even the contribution of the organization’s people resources, may go unnoticed and unattended. Symbolism is vitally important in organizations; but an organization’s people, its strategies, and its structures are as equally important.

Dr. Joan V. Gallos’ book chapter discusses how organizational diagnosis can be performed using the Four Frames:

Gallos, J.V. (2006). Reframing complexity: A four dimensional approach to organizational diagnosis, development, and change. In Joan V. Gallos (Ed.), Organization Development: A Jossey-Bass Reader. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved on May 1, 2014 from…

Doug Greene’s presentation on reframing is a very good introduction to framing and discussion of the Four Frames Model:

Greene, D. (2010). Reframing organizations. Dr. Doug Greene. Retrieved on May 11, 2014 from…

Below is an early (Winter 1991) journal article by Bolman and Deal, in which the authors studied the Four Frames Model in two organizations:

Bolman, L.G., & Deal, T.E. (1991). Leadership and management effectiveness: A multi-frame, multi-sector analysis. Human Resource Management (1986-1998), 30(4), 509-531. Retrieved from ProQuest.

Following is an excellent outline overview of the Four Frames. Bolman and Deal have aptly subtitled the reframing process as “The Leadership Kaleidoscope”:

Bolman, L.G., & Deal, T.E. (n.d.). Reframing organizations: The leadership kaleidoscope. Retrieved on May 8, 2014 from

Be sure to visit Dr. Lee Bolman’s home page, an excellent source of information concerning frames and framing. Get the story directly from one of the original authors of the Four Frames Model:

Bolman, L. (2014). Reframing organizations teaching resources. Lee Bolman. Retrieved on May 8, 2014 from…

Finally, be sure that you review the excellent summary tables included here:

Filipovitch, A.J. (2005). Framing organizations. Retrieved from…

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