Never Go Full Framework


Frameworks exist to support decisions…not to make them. 


“Everybody knows you never go full [framework].” – Kirk Lazarus, Tropic Thunder

Ever work with a leader who was too wedded to a framework? Not in terms of using the framework to organize their thinking, but in terms of letting the framework do the thinking?

Plug and chug.

Rack and stack.

Rank and yank.

You know the kind.  They’re the ones who will not only enforce the rigor that a BCG growth / share matrix implies in evaluating a portfolio but also blindly follow its conclusions to divest, invest, or starve businesses in the company’s portfolio, real-world results be damned.

If you know corporate strategy, you know these people.  Sometimes they come in the form of consultants who are selling an approach or framework itself, and sometimes, it’s the executive who just really wants a complex world to be as simple as a spreadsheet.

So, let me just say it this way:  Never, ever go full framework.

A story

I spent years as a competitive athlete on the football field.  I had the opportunity to know and work with many truly great coaches (the greatest of whom are probably more nameless than they should be). In the highly structured and choreographed game that is American football, technical details, frameworks, concepts, and plays abound. Though it is a sudden and violent game, it is also a technical game: no play exists that doesn’t come with prescriptions for precise footwork, speed, and multi-person meshing of motion.

And you know what?  It’s all wrong.

What’s that you say?

Yep, it’s all wrong.  No great coach in football relies on his players to merely run plays as they are diagrammed, and no great team in existence runs plays that way.  The world doesn’t even work that way.  The moment the ball is snapped and the play starts, all bets are off.  The defensive tackle moves at the last moment, and suddenly you’re off balance.  Then the linebacker fills the wrong hole in the line, and now your path is blocked.

Precise footwork can become precisely wrong footwork, so for that reason, you do what it takes, not what the framework demands. Bad players will botch a play, go back to the coach, and say “I did all the right technique and it didn’t work.” They are “full framework.” Good players—really great players—read, react, and deliver.  They, to use a term I’m very fond of, overcome coaching.  They know when it’s time to go off script.

Which brings me back to my advice…

Going “Full Framework”

I have worked with management teams who decide to use extremely prescriptive financial or people metrics to run organizations; they use hard-and-fast logical frameworks, such as financial hurdle rates or scores on standardized tests.  They use the frameworks as tools to make decisions and, to put it bluntly, as alibis.

Frameworks give cover; they give comfort. And you know what? They too often also cause management to go home empty handed. The HR person who relies too much on standardized test scores is bound to miss out on natural players; the M&A strategist who relies too much on a framework of numbers and rules will miss out on attractive deals; and the sales manager who insists on having full attendance at 8:30 am every day of the week will miss out on productive salespeople whose style doesn’t mesh with such a rule.

The worst of cases

I’ve mentioned that going full framework gives cover and comfort, but what it can also give is moral distance. The framework says fire that guy, so you do.  Who cares if his wife has major medical issues and COBRA won’t cover them? The framework says promote that gal, so you do.  Who cares if she is completely loathed by the people she will manage—that’s their problem.  Your framework says you have to get to x dollars on price or you walk from negotiation. Who cares what other value is on the table? The framework says divest that underperforming division.  Never mind that it’s the division with the most promising talent your company contains…it’s underperforming.

You’ve gone full framework; it’s not your decision anymore, right? That’s where the worst cases come up—when you go full framework and you lose ownership of the problem, you lose values and a value-centric view of things.

I give these examples as the worst of cases, but in reality the worst of cases is when these alibis are used by senior executives; when they absolve themselves of the responsibility to interpret and decide in favor of letting frameworks or spreadsheets do the heavy lifting, companies suffer.

So what?

This is about you (and me).  You have to be able to overcome coaching, and you have to be able to overcome frameworks.  A good practice is to use frameworks for what they are:  ways of organizing thoughts and concepts for deeper consumption.  You use them rigorously to position yourself for decision making, but you don’t actually make decisions via framework; you make them via reasoned consideration of all available information, and no framework can capture that.

Sure, you diagram plays.  Sure, you use a profitability pareto to tell you which accounts you might need to change or fire.  Sure, you use a growth-share matrix to guide you to your most promising portfolio. Sure, you apply 5 forces, SCP, 7S, Blue Ocean, name your framework here to define reality.

But you still have to decide. Remember, you may diagram the play, but the defense will move. The framework can’t possibly represent the real world completely.  That’s for you to do.

Next time you are faced with an executive who has decided to go full framework, think about this picture of Simple Jack from Tropic Thunder, a fair if crude satire of many things Hollywood, business and otherwise:

simple Jack

Remember…He went full framework.

Now it’s your turn:  How do you ensure that you overcome coaching?  Ever gone full framework?  Leave a reply.  Start the discussion.

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