Book review: Reframing Business - Richard Normann

Feb 23

A visit to the business book department usually is not a very uplifting experience. The unabashed shallowness of content and representation reveals the often questionnable intellectual standards of those professionally engaged in the creation of economic value. A thoughtful book such as ‘Reframing Business’ is welcome oxygen for someone who finds this lack of discipline deeply troubling.

For those in need of convenient shortcuts in dealing with strategic issues, Normann’s book carries mixed messages. The good news is that shortcuts are indeed possible. The bad news is that this requires serious conceptual thinking and reformulation of the issues at a higher level of abstraction. The key word, therefore, is ‘elegance’ rather than ‘simplification’.

‘Reframing Business’ talks about ‘maps’ and ‘landscapes’. The landscape denotes the dominating logic of value creation that forms the backbone for a given configuration of business systems. Maps are a metaphor then for the symbolising processes of the mind, the conceptual frameworks we use to make sense of what happens in the business environment. Between these two lines of thought Normann posits a dialectical relationship: our strategic paradigms are shaped by the existing business context, which in turn is influenced by the mental frameworks we espouse to approach it. The co-evolution between business reconfiguration and mental reframing is the central theme of the book. Normann’s approach is obviously indebted to systems theorists such as Maturana and Varela who introduced the idea of a fundamental interdependency between mind and world almost 30 years ago. This is not new and neither are the implications that Normann elaborates from these basic principles: the experience of the outside world as a dynamic continuum of opportunities and the need for an organisational infrastructure that supports recurrent purposeful emergence (autopoiesis) in order to thrive in it.

This is the hard part of course for those seeking quick fixes in this book. As the author rightly points out, the ability to look at the world as a continuum of opportunities constitutes a fundamental choice. Normann believes that to a certain extent, this way of being in the world can be consciously learned and a large part of the book is in fact a very cerebral introduction to the sister disciplines of ‘mapping’ and ‘landscaping’. The latter centers on the ability to recognise and shape the business offering as a tool for organising co-production between various players in the environment. ‘Mapping’ requires conscious ‘upframing’ of the strategic issues to higher levels of abstraction, which Normann undergirds with a rather generic thinking process.

For those with sufficient conceptual agility, Normann’s landscaping and mapping toolbox indeed constitutes a rich collection of ‘shortcuts’ for thinking through strategic issues. They will have no problems of buying into the argument, even if it is occasionally more suggestive than substantial. In fact, for these readers the book will fit snugly into their mental breast-pocket, ready to yield any of the numerous goodies hidden between its covers. However, those readers who have no feeling for the founding principles of this theory, will have a hard time in finding their way in what will seem a sprawling and arcane conceptual edifice.

It is clear by now, I hope, that I worked through this book with considerable enthusiasm. However, to my mind it doesn’t qualify for a five star rating, for two reasons. An important reservation concerns the kaleidoscopic variety of sources that is mobilised in order to substantiate the main argument. Normann dips into systems theory, cognition theory, social constructionism, complexity theory and much besides. Swiftly and imperceptibly, he crosses disciplinary borders and switches from metaphorical use of concepts into rigorous explanatory mode. I am convinced this methodological eclecticism obscures the argument. A focused and economical effort at integrating systems and management science would have yielded a more elegant and timeless contribution.

Secondly, as indicated this work takes a conceptual angle in trying to come to grips with the issue of securing organisational viability in a complex environment. This is only part of the story and Normann knows it. In the final chapters on leadership, which I find amongst the weakest of the whole book, he discusses these issues only briefly. Groundedness, authenticity and humility are key aspects of the more spiritual side of leadership and they imperatively need to complement the more cerebral view of leaders as people with a strong capacity ‘to perform the mental process of imagining and synthesising in the domain of the upframed conceptual future’. Margaret Wheatley has written eloquently on the ‘softer’ side of leadership in her books ‘A Simpler Way’ and ‘Leadership and the New Science’ but then, as a woman, she can probably afford to strike a more ‘emotional’ tone in the macho world of management and management science. The problem with Wheatley’s book is also that they lack the conceptual incisiveness of Normann’s approach. For a combination of intellectual rigour and humane wisdom we need to move out of management science altogether, with the exception, perhaps of Luc Hoebeke’s ‘Making Work Systems Better’ (also published by Wiley) which in its systemic, sober, low-key approach to the discipline of human value creation does not fail to make a deep impression.

Despite these reservations, I have no doubt that Richard Normann’s book is a very valuable addition to the management science canon. It deserves to be recommended to thoughtful practitioners and managers.

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