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Environmental management and organisations
Environmental management and organisations

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12 Framing in environmental management

The preceding discussion raises a point about the language of management and how it frames our thinking and practice. Framing is the way something is interpreted or represented – either in ideas or language. The term ‘solution’ frames the way an organisation might think about its environment as a simple ‘problem to be fixed’. In turn, this will shape an organisation’s environmental practices. As you have already seen, many environmental situations are much more complex and our ability to understand the nature of the situation may be limited.

The importance of framing is highlighted by the following quotes from Russell Ackoff, a great systems thinker and writer, as noted in an article by Stern (2009) published shortly after Ackoff’s death.

All of our problems arise out of doing the wrong thing righter … The more efficient you are at doing the wrong thing, the wronger you become. It is much better to do the right thing wronger than the wrong thing righter. If you do the right thing wrong and correct it, you get better.

Ackoff, quoted in Stern, 2009

In this first quote, Ackoff was trying to draw attention to the way organisations think and structure decision making, and the limitations this can bring. The drive for efficiency and tinkering with one part of an organisation can result in doing the ‘wrong thing righter’ instead of looking at the people in the organisation as an interconnected system.

The only problems that have simple solutions are simple problems. The only managers that have simple problems have simple minds. Problems that arise in organisations are almost always the product of interactions of parts, never the action of a single part. Complex problems do not have simple solutions.

Ackoff, quoted in Stern, 2009

This second quote captures the concern about how we frame our understanding and actions relating to management through particular forms of language, and the importance of realising that the interconnected aspects of an organisation (as a system) means that organisations rarely face ‘simple’ problems.

Ackoff’s work suggests environmental management in organisations is a complex process from which clarity arises out of an understanding of systemic relationships. Using the term situation rather than problem can convey the idea of complexity and thus the need for a different approach, which might require something to be managed in a completely different way. In situations, a one-off solution is not going to work. The situation requires some kind of management.

(If you’re interested, you can find out more about Russell Ackoff and some of his publications at russ-ackoff.html [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .)

Drawing on the notion of ecological literacy, Table 3 suggests the key capability for an environmental manager and an organisation as a whole is to be able to recognise and differentiate between a problem and a situation.

Table 3 Distinguishing between a problem and a situation
ProblemSimpleSolutionFixed or solved
SituationComplex or systemicManagingOngoing

The skill is then to be able to choose environmental management intervention or strategies appropriately. In the next section, we look briefly at how framing has shaped the history of environmental management responses by organisations.