From Frames to Upholstery

Miernik believes that romantic composers prepared the ground for totalitarian politicians: both deal in illusions, knowing that the illusions people have about themselves as individuals and as nations are stronger than reality.

—Charles McCarry, The Miernik Dossier

It’s easy to be self-congratulatory when delivering something requested. Sometimes that is as it should be. This does not negate that such product work is of necessity often excluded from larger questions of value. The hope is such questions were optimally (or at least adequately) dealt with upstream. Yet all too often this hope is unfounded, and the real origin of what then becomes a large train of planned work really was just a request.

The result is an analytic, factory-like mentality for all the execution to come. Such work is blind to problem framing. Taking a page from Erving Goffman, to analyze your “frame” is to step out of and examine how your assumptions organize your experience and interpretations, including about the work that you are doing, and why, as well as the value that it creates (or doesn’t).

The metaphor of “framing”, first described by Gregory Bateson in the 1950s, to me at least leaves something to be desired. It doesn’t tend to be all that meaningfully tied to the act of rethinking, of looking from “other angles” or through “different lenses”. In this post we’ll explore what might be a better metaphor, from the work of psychoanalyst and philosopher Jacques Lacan.

This is his “point de capiton”, often translated from French as the “quilting point”. As described by psychotherapist Crispin Balfour, Lacan’s quilting point refers to how upholsterers use buttons to secure fabric to backing, thereby keeping the batting in place and maintaining a defined shape. Lacan, influenced by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, made great use of his concept of “signs”.

A sign is composed of two things, a “signifier”, which is a symbol, such as the words we use, and their “signifieds”, which are the meanings we attach to signifiers. That any given word means what it does is just social convention. Thus, signifiers ≠ signifieds. Indeed, despite such convention, this process is ambiguous, and we often use the same signifiers in different ways, disagreeing on signifieds.

A “master signifier” is a big concept without a signified that our sense of self is often “sewn up in”. Since it has no real signifieds, it is ultimately self-referential. Take concepts like “freedom” or “democracy” or “God”. What they mean to you ultimately depends on what other signifiers you pull in and use to anchor them in place, to “stitch them down”. These other signifiers are then your point de capitons. As Balfour beautifully puts it, language resists this “stitching down”. Where we place our quilting points are thus where we anchor our interpretation, stitching it in place both prospectively and retroactively.

Philosopher Todd McGowan notes that master signifiers require quilting points to retroactively provide them with meaning because, again, since they are self-referential, there is a sense in which they do not mean anything. (Again, they are signifiers without signifieds.) Since they are self-referential and we all “quilt” them differently, McGowan says, arguing over them is a waste of time—it is a recursive trap.

As an interesting aside, philosopher Ryan Engley suggests that many political arguments are about master signifiers. They get heated and seem intractable precisely because they are about ideas we are “sewn up in” that are ultimately self-referential, ideas which we define by quilting them in ways that also anchor our very sense of morality and self.

Bringing this back to Lacan, for me his metaphors better illustrate that framing is more than context. It’s also how you “sense make” by projecting parts of yourself into every mental construct. To quote Lacan, as translated by McGowan, “Of course the picture is in my eye, but I am also in the picture”. 

If all this sounds a little esoteric, then let’s bring it back to product work. How much time have you spent (or wasted) arguing over concepts like “agile” or “value”? They’re likely master signifiers. “Agile” doesn’t really mean anything outside of how you quilt it, and “value”, well, that is a true master signifier in that it ultimately only refers back to itself.

“Value” is whatever the business values, right? How is that not just another way of saying “important”? And how then are we supposed to prioritize this “importance”? Based on what? Not “value”—that would be circular. And as Mark Schwartz notes, it is actually not just about money. Businesses do in fact value other things, in fact sometimes things that lose them money.  

Aidan Dunphy is onto something when he suggests that the way out of this trap is to uplevel out of the recursion. As he replied to me recently, you shouldn’t talk about “value” at all if you haven’t defined your strategy, the set of choices you make in order to reach your business goals. Whether something helps you reach these goals, then, is the point de capiton determining whether it is “value”. Without this quilting point, all you are left with is the circularity.  

Returning to the concept of “framing”, we can see how these metaphors play with each other: Changing the quilting point results in a reinterpretation of everything else, including all that preceded it. This is akin to a “reframe”. In Goffman’s classic book, Frame Analysis, he argues that your “primary framework” is a frame not seen as depending on prior interpretation. It grounds how you think about things in ways you do not realize.

Using the Lacanian analogy, Goffman’s “primary” means not being consciously aware of the quilting points at play, which is likely typically the case. An analogous concept from scenario planning might be the “ghost scenario”, the current, background, unchallenged narrative that frames (or quilts) the work you are about to do.

To expose the ghost scenario—the prevailing frame, the current point de capiton—start by eliciting and capturing the assumptions at play and making them explicit, exposed to public view and consideration. Then, by rightsizing research you can start replacing captured assumptions with information, thereby reducing risk.

Now, there is a temptation to also make a comparison to betting here. The argument would be that rightsizing your research helps you make faster, cheaper “bets” that may gain you the same “winnings” (learnings). The alternative, so the analogy goes, is that if you instead just keep building requested product increments, then you are betting the maximum every time, thereby learning later, and at a premium, which assumptions were off base.

There is, however, something slyly amiss here. Recall the very first sentence above: “It’s easy to be self-congratulatory when delivering something requested”. In other words, when work is “quilted” in this way and the focus is on delivery, then delivery itself will be celebrated, and often come what may. The tendency will be to paint all such work as a success, which means, incidentally, that you are not testing assumptions.

Such work, once done, is seldom revisited, which further means that what is learned from it is, well, nothing much. And indeed, learning isn’t the point—delivery is, to be followed only by more. Such a focus on execution and deadlines is antithetical to discovery and innovation. Improving the efficiency of such singly-quilted solutioning will, in many contexts, sadly only increase the flow of suboptimal work.

Often organizations will tout the importance of learning while still only celebrating delivery. Learning, then, is not incentivized. Even when verbally encouraged, the popular notion of “failure as feedback” is typically quilted in the vein of “hypothesis testing”, ignoring an alternative yet vital point de capiton. This is the organizational political frame, the idea that failure is sometimes part of the necessary building of a political muscle that will be needed to ever succeed in a certain space to begin with.

This will seem foreign if your work is only quilted as “building software”. Doing so ignores Gerald Weinberg’s laws of consulting. If you’re not familiar, here is Weinberg’s First Law of Consulting: “In spite of what your client may tell you, there is always a problem”. The Second Law of Consulting: “No matter how it looks at first, it’s always a people problem”. This should then suggest: “If your go-to solution for every problem is software, then you don’t understand Weinberg’s laws of consulting”.

The way teams see their work, and also themselves in relation that that work—including what they are capable of and what they can achieve—thus “stitches down” what thoughts they will think about the types of problems they can solve and what they are allowed to do to solve them. Allen Holub recently tweeted, “The problem with rewarding people for writing code is that sometimes the most productive thing you can do is remove code”, to which I replied, “…or solve the problem without any code at all”.

This would, however, be too “out of the box” for many teams. It’s just not “what they do”, which is unfortunate and self-limiting. They build software, and that means there is a host of potentially more value-adding things that are, ipso facto, “out of scope”. And it’s a shame, because remember, it’s really a people problem, and there are a lot of ways to help people, with software often not being the best among them. (In fact, with many problems what the world does not need is more software!)  

To close, before diving into “solution space”, it is well worth keeping in mind, by way of both Weinberg and Lacan, that 1) There is a problem at play; 2) It ultimately involves people and their behavior; and 3) Whatever you happen to think the problem is that you are solving is where you are placing the quilting point.

So maybe place it with some care.

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