Problem framing and co-creation

By Graeme Nicholas

Graeme Nicholas (biography)

How can people with quite different ways of ‘seeing’ and thinking about a problem discover and negotiate these differences?

A key element of co-creation is joint problem definition. However, problem definition is likely to be a matter of perspective, or a matter of how each person involved ‘frames’ the problem. Differing frames are inevitable when participants bring their differing expertise and experience to a problem. Methods and processes to support co-creation, then, need to manage the coming together of people with differing ways of framing the problem, so participants can contribute to joint problem definition.

I was first alerted to the role of framing by the work of Donald Schön. In Educating the Reflective Practitioner (1987), Schön states,

In the terrain of professional practice, applied science and research-based technique occupy a critically important though limited territory, bounded on several sides by artistry. There are an art of problem framing, an art of implementation, and an art of improvisation – all necessary to mediate the use in practice of applied science and technique.

This ‘art of problem framing’ is part of what makes the field of practice more than a simple application of knowledge or technique. Framing is an active process involving fateful judgement (artistry) that, in part, determines the outcome.

Framing for co-creation will involve collaborative processes. In my experience, working on projects such as inter-agency collaboration to manage public health risks, collaborative framing depends on bringing together diverse perspectives in ways that avoid collapsing the diversity while engaging together around some ‘good enough’ representation of the situation. Processes that encourage convergence of thinking are likely to lack attention to framing.

What I find useful is to form a provisional judgement about who are actors in a problem situation, and then invite to a workshop people representing as many likely perspectives on the situation as is practical. Workshops are designed and facilitated in ways that respect and manage diversity of perspective, expertise and experience, as well as diversity of positional and personal power.

Key to such workshop design and facilitation are two elements: how group-work is structured and the use of ‘boundary objects’. I use boundary objects in workshops as a focus for surfacing diverse understanding, interpretation and assumptions; in other words, I use boundary objects in the service of collaborative framing.

Boundary objects have been defined by Star and Griesemer (1989) as conceptual or tangible items that live “in multiple social worlds and … [have] different identities in each”. A boundary object to support co-creation of outcomes can take many forms. I have used the following as useful boundary objects:

  • conceptual models
  • ‘rich pictures’ produced by the group itself
  • theoretical frameworks
  • narrative material
  • archetypes.

The key attribute that allows something to function as a boundary object is that its meaning and significance can be interpreted and discussed from each of the viewpoints present in the group.

Conceptual models can be derived from key informant interviews, the literature or a scoping phase of a project. The model or models produced are deliberately provisional, and attempt to represent a chosen system at a glance. As such, a model makes discussible judgements about what is in and what is out of consideration, what interactions are important in understanding how the system works, and whose perspectives are important in understanding and changing the system.

Rich pictures are a way to get participants to illustrate the complexity of actors and interactions that make up a given situation. The key is to get the complexity into a form that can be seen at a glance, and discussed from various points of view. No consensus is needed in collaborating to produce a rich picture. Both the process of producing the composite picture and the picture itself serve as boundary objects.

Theoretical frameworks that have served as boundary objects in my work have been:

  • Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology framework, CATWOE
  • Ulrich’s Critical System Heuristics
  • Beer’s Viable System Model.

In each case inviting a diverse group to collaborate in populating the frameworks has resulted in surfacing and negotiating implicit frames.

Narrative material provides participants with anonymised quotes that provide windows on a situation and invite collaborative sense-making as to what a given anecdote or extract might signify. Again, the critical feature is that the process focuses on an object that is open to interpretation and contestation.

Archetypes can be used to characterise a situation or aspects of a situation. By their nature archetypes are open to interpretation and the choice of archetypes and their significance prove useful in discovering and negotiating the ways a situation can be framed.

There will be many other examples of using boundary objects to support problem framing. What boundary objects have you used to assist in problem framing? How have you worked with the range of ways a given situation is framed by participants to maintain diversity?

Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the Reflective Practitioner. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, United States of America.

Star, S. L. and Griesemer, J. R. (1989). Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, 19, 3: 387-420.

Further Reading:

Soft Systems Methodology, CATWOE, and Rich Pictures:
Checkland, P. and  Poulter, J. (2006). Learning for Action: A Short Definitive Account of Soft Systems Methodology and its use for Practitioners, Teachers and Students. John Wiley and Sons: Chichester, United Kingdom.

Critical System Heuristics:
Ulrich, W. and Reynolds, M. (2010). Critical systems heuristics. In, M. Reynolds and S. Holwell (Eds.), Systems Approaches to Managing Change: A Practical Guide. Springer: London, United Kingdom, 243–292.

Viable System Model:
Beer, S. (1985). Diagnosing the System for Organizations. John Wiley and Sons: London, United Kingdom.

Narrative approach and use of archetypes:
Snowden, D. (2001). Narrative Patterns: the perils and possibilities of using story in organisations. Knowledge Management, 4, 10: 16-20.

Biography: Graeme Nicholas is a senior scientist in the social systems team at the New Zealand Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR). His speciality is applying complexity science to the understanding and improvement of complex social systems. He has led client focused research projects on service innovation in health, social services, policing and fire prevention. His qualifications, training and experience include microbiology, theology, systems oriented consulting, psychotherapeutic theory, dialogue design and facilitation, organisation consultancy, and professional training services. He is a member of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

This blog post is one of a series developed in preparation for the second meeting in January 2017 of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit. This pursuit is part of the theme Building Resources for Complex Action-Oriented Team Science funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

12 thoughts on “Problem framing and co-creation”

  1. I have been reading Star’s work on boundary objects recently, and it leaves me with some questions. In a paper written just before she died, and published postumously, she rued that fact that people welcomed the boundary object idea but have forgotten about the linked concept of ‘infrastructures’.

    Now, I think the reason the latter has been forgotten is that the choice of word was unfortunate: it conjours images of roads, railways and housing stock rather than the institutional infrastructure of collaboration across organizational boundaries that she was referring to.

    However, getting back to her original work on this is instructive: an infrastructure is in essence a boundary object that has become institutionalized so it is regularly used to enable collaborative engagement across boundaries.

    I realised when I read her paper that the presentation of DNA evidence in Court is an example of an infrastructure because the forensic scientists interpret the evidence as a statement of statistical probability (explicitly stopping short of saying it is about the identity of the offender), while lawyers interpret it precisely as about the identity of the offender, and the fact that there is always an element of uncertainty in the science almost always gets lost in the interpretation. This is a classic case where both the institutions of law and science gain from refusing to challenge their divergent interpretations in Court.

    However, in the context of the kinds of workshops we facilitate, divergent interpretations of models could be highly problematic: they may ‘fudge’ things so people can reach agreements on action, but those agreements could unravel if participants later realize they were using the same words to mean different things.

    I am more persuaded by Checkland’s idea of people achieving greater mutual understanding: that the models are constructed in an exploratory manner, so everybody gets onto the same page about each others’ perspectives. This is then a basis for identifying possible accommodations, or next steps forward.

    I would be interested in some reflections of the strengths and weaknesses of the concept of ‘boundary objects’, in the context of both institution building (Star’s main concern) and more transitory modelling workshops, where there might be a need to transcend the initial frames of the participants or help them find an adaptive path while retaining their frames.

    Star SL (2010). This is Not a Boundary Object: Reflections on the Origin of a Concept. Science, Technology, and Human Values, 35(5), 601-617.

    • Thanks Gerald for your stimulating reflections. Yes, I have had a look at the Star 2010 paper, and you have prompted me to go back to it. You raise some interesting questions. I do see the risk of divergent interpretations being ‘fudged’, but i suggest that agreements on action do not depend on agreement on language/framing. I agree with you on Checkland’s idea of mutual understanding and the exploratory value of models. I don’t think this makes such a model or models any less boundary objects. I find Star useful in this when she states, “Boundary objects are a sort of arrangement that allow different groups to work together without consensus.” This is related to my enthusiasm for metaphors; the metaphor can be shared, but – lacking an exact meaning – can be understood in different ways without losing its power to challenge.

      Your comments (and those of Stephen Fiore, here) have helped me think more about how I am using the term ‘boundary object’ and how such objects function. In response to Stephen I have been thinking about it in terms of cognition. It seems to me a good boundary object has to have enough dimensions that it does not demand a simple or singular response. It is, by definition, something to argue about. It is not going to help with the argument, except by existing. It will not assist with coming to any conclusions about its significance or meaning. It is something to interpret, not something to help with interpretation. It is definitely ‘object’ rather than ‘subject’ in that it does not participate or bring a perspective, or constraint, or functionality to the process. Its sole function is to exist in a common space. it is a tool on insofar as some person or persons may point to it for the purpose of eliciting response.

      • I agree with you that people can co-create without consensus. This is why Checkland talks so much about accommodations. It’s interesting though that you (like Alberto Franco and Colin Eden, who have written about boundary objects in problem structuring) emphasise their utility for collaboration in the absence of consensus, while I emphasise another characteristic – that they are interpreted differently by the different parties. I suspect that, paradoxically, the concept of boundary objects is a boundary object in this discussion!!!!

        I am interested in the different interpretations because I approached the concept to help me understand how it is possible that forensic scientists and legal system participants have serious concerns about each others’ framings, but this never comes out in court. Prior to this interest, however, I followed Franco in using the concept of a boundary object in a manner that emphasised it as a temporary focus that mediates different perspectives to get people working together. It is possible that we need to appreciate that boundary objects CAN help people work in the absence of consensus, but they can ALSO mislead when the different interpretations of them have different consequences for action. This makes sense of why Checkland doesn’t only do root refinitions and CATWOEs, but also conceptual models that explain the consequences of a proposed transformation for action.

  2. You might appreciate The Handbook of Interactive Management by Cardenas and Warfield. It has been used in several hundred situations with consistently excellent results. Interestingly it includes a Spreadthink test which shows whether the participants are firmly dedicated to NOT converging.

    • Thanks jring281, I will have a look. I am interested in the role of convergence in groups and how to sustain diverse perspectives while building collaborative relationships.

  3. Nice post Graeme. I use SSM and CSH for ‘framing’ all the time in my evaluations both in New Zealand and elsewhere in the world. I have not yet had any push back from the use of the word, although it was a pain to translate in the Spanish edition of my latest ebook on using systems concepts in evaluation design.

    • Thanks Bob. I have been thinking seriously about the comments on the use of ‘framing’ by Stephen Fiore. I will respond to his comment separately. Just to say, I have never had any negative response to the use of the language of framing in my work. Indeed, people have often found it very useful. Typically I have introduced the term with analogies of window frames and the way an artist or photographer frames an image.

  4. Great essay, Graeme, but I wonder if “framing” is the best way to characterize this. I understand the point being made, and why it’s being used (e.g., taking the kind of approach Goffman would recommend). My hesitation, though, comes from the way “framing” has been used in the social sciences, more broadly. For example, framing in the social sciences sometimes has a negative connotation indicative of purposeful manipulation of a view of reality (like Lakoff on politics), or biases (like Kahneman and Tversky on decision making). As for addressing this issue, I’ve used phrases like “problem model” or “problem space” (e.g., defining the problem space and/or developing a shared problem model). Below are a few of my papers where I’ve touched upon this topic. The first is a recent one elaborating on the role of external cognition (e.g., boundary objects) in complex problem solving. The second is a paper describing a theory of problem solving processes. The third is one of my first forays into this discussion on one of the ways teams develop a shared problem model.

    Steve Fiore

    Fiore, S.M. & Wiltshire, T.J. (2016). Technology as Teammate: Examining the Role of External Cognition in Support of Team Cognitive Processes. Frontiers in Psychology: Cognitive Science. 7:1531. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01531.

    Fiore, S. M., Rosen, M. A., Smith-Jentsch, K. A., Salas, E., Letsky, M. & Warner, N. (2010). Toward an Understanding of Macrocognition in Teams: Predicting Processes in Complex Collaborative Contexts. Human Factors, 52, 2, 203-224.

    Fiore, S. M. & Schooler, J. W. (2004). Process mapping and shared cognition: Teamwork and the development of shared problem models. In E. Salas & S.M. Fiore (Editors). Team Cognition: Understanding the factors that drive process and performance (pp. 133-152). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    • Stephen, my apologies for not responding sooner. I found your comments and your suggested papers very useful. I have been thinking about the relation between my interpretation of boundary objects for co-creation and collaboration, and your work on external cognition. It has been clarifying.

      Is it possible that boundary objects, when they function to surface implicit framing and therefore support collaboration, are a special case or a subset of external cognition and the use of technology in teams as per your work?

      The special case would be the use of artefacts to enable collaborative problem structuring and to surface assumptions about the problem. This feels like it is not fully the same as the relationship with technologies that become enabling environment for collaborative work. In the special case the artefact serves as a catalyst (is not used instrumentally, not used up), and enables thought, but only in the same way as a sunset is the context and enabler of a sense of beauty or wonder. The sunset did not add power to the sense of wonder, but occasioned it. By having an artefact in common among a group (let’s avoid the term team because it implies some preconception of relationship) it is possible to engage together in a way that would be harder without the artefact. The artefact occasions certain expression, and participants are then able to respond to the expressions around them – find them insightful, surprising, agreeable, disagreeable, confusing, incomprehensible … This is somewhat different than an artefact being a technology in the cognition process. What would make it a technology is that it does something or is explicitly used for something. The sunset is not active, it is not causitive, it is not used as a tool; it occasions, it is a context, it is a stimulus.

      Such a boundary object is functioning in a passive way – group participants may become active in the attention they pay to the object, but it is not as active as a pencil and paper, or a computer, or a book.

      A good boundary object has to have enough dimensions that it does not demand a simple or singular response. It is, by definition, something to argue about. It is not going to help with the argument, except by existing. It will not assist with coming to any conclusions about its significance or meaning. It is something to interpret, not something to help with interpretation. It is definitely ‘object’ rather than ‘subject’ in that it does not participate or bring a perspective, or constraint, or functionality to the process. Its sole function is to exist in a common space. It is a tool only insofar as some person or persons may point to it for the purpose of eliciting response.

      Other technologies or objects can be used as part of collaborative cognition, but the boundary object is no more part of the cognitive process than the mathematical puzzle, or the work of art, or the explicit problem is. But, the boundary object does function to think about the problem itself; how is the problem to be framed, what are the diverse assumptions in the group about the problem? etc. So this is quite similar to being a technology for cognition, but it is indirect. The boundary object is helping the collaborative cognition on problem framing simply by being a proxy for the problem (but with more discussability).

      What makes a boundary object more discussible than the problem itself may be any of a number of properties: It may be:

      – more tangible and/or able to be appreciated at a glance than an abstract or multilayered problem;
      – safer or easier to discuss because participants have less invested in the analogue than in the real-world problem;
      – more evocative, in that it has some features that may speak to the world of the problem situation, but metaphorically, and therefore may raise some tangential, off the wall perspectives;
      – safer to use for experimentation (mental or tangible) – in other words, a boundary object can be manipulated without fear of intervening in the real situation;
      – sufficiently outside the expertise of all participants that consideration of the boundary object requires common, rather than technical, language – this can enable dialogue between people with different expertise, and may even out perceived power imbalances based on dominant discourses.

      So, as I see it, there are qualities of a boundary object that aid the cognitive process of considering the object itself, but these qualities are not similar to the use of technologies for cognition. An interesting example is the use of technology to make or interact with a boundary object. For example a rich picture or a conceptual model may be produced and played with using paper, pens, or computers. The paper, pens or computer are functioning as part of the cognition, but the picture or model produced is simply the object about which cognition is being applied.

  5. Hi Neil, glad to hear you liked the post, but to answer your question – ‘is there a mechanism to post images within a comment’ – at this point in time I am sorry to say that we are not supporting images in comments (this is less a technical issue, and more a broader site resource management issue for us). Thanks for raising the query though, as it feeds into our longer term thinking about what we can support on the blog.
    Best wishes, Peter (blog moderator)

    • Thanks Peter – understood. Just noting, the blog was about ‘seeing’… and boundary objects… I have many. I’ll be happy to share if and when the option becomes available 🙂

  6. Excellent post – many synergies with my work. I would love to share some diagrams in reponse. Is there a mechanism for doing this here?


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