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Problem Framing and Co-creation

November 28, 2016

Graeme Nicholas, guest contributor and member of SESYNC's Co-creative Capacity synthesis team.

A Co-creation Challenge: Aligning Research and Policy Processes

By Graeme Nicholas

This blog post originally appeared in the Integration and Implementation Insights blog (http://I2Insights.org) as “Problem framing and co-creation," and is reposted with the author’s permission.


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).

Associated Project: 

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