The Dilemma and Challenge of Using Frameworks, Tools, and Methods

Finn Koehler
navigating complexity
7 min readNov 30, 2022


Photo by USGS on Unsplash

“We think we’re in control but all that we’re controlling is the projection of the model in our heads. If that isn’t a good fit to whatever is out there, we’re useless.” — Stafford Beer

There is a tool for how to work as a team, a method telling you how to think, a framework explaining how systems work — and for almost everything else one could imagine. At first glance, this seems amazing: aren’t these enabling people, teams, and organizations to thrive?

Yes! But also: no! At least not in the long term.

Why All Tools are Wrong — and Why We Still Use Them

We at Kaospilot+ Berlin rely on various tools, methodologies, and frameworks to deliver our best work every day. That saves countless hours (and further resources) and allows us to bring together what is proven to work. We are great supporters of various toolboxes and organizations curating methodologies and structures to work with — but at the same time we’re increasingly concerned about the way we (as knowledge workers) rely on those.

The thing is: any tool, methodology, or framework is developed for a very specific context. It is the outcome of a specific development process, with specific people, in a specific culture, with specific values, a specific goal, and a specific understanding of how the world works. When we take a tool out of that context, it will (almost always) not work as intended.

The reason is that all of these are abstractions. They take the complexities of reality and try to represent them in a simplified way. This is extremely useful, because it allows us to communicate and think about complex topics more effectively. However, it also has some major drawbacks, as all abstractions are incomplete. They leave out details and assume certain things to be true. This is necessary, because if they would include everything, they would be too heavy to use at all. Only the simplification, the cutting of noise, is making them useful in the first place.

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” — George Box

So while these tools open up a lot of opportunities, and they are not the problem itself, they still have the potential to deprive us of the capability to think about new approaches, developing new methodologies, and taking a step back and reflecting on what we are trying to do it in the first place. By focusing only on a proven approach, we’re losing sight of the whole system in place. That might not be a huge problem in the short-term but in the long term we are unlearning to develop new tools, methods, and frameworks for new challenges and situations.

The Need to Take a Step Back

Therefore, we need to move away from depending on external tools, methods, and frameworks, and focus on developing our own from time to time.

That does not mean we should ignore what is out there — quite the contrary: the first step is to become better at evaluating which tool, methodology, or framework we are actually using and what will work best in a specific context. Afterward, we can analyze them in more depth and detail before we can start using them as a starting point to develop our own, custom-fit solutions.

This might seem like a paradox: we need to use the existing tools, methods, models and frameworks to break out of the dependency on them. By analyzing, questioning, adjusting, and using them to recognize their blind spots, we learn to think about the whole system again. We could take some time and explore systems “by hand” before we start applying any tool, method, or framework. We might be surprised about some aspects that we haven’t considered before and that we could leverage in a different way.

A key concept to understanding this challenge is a mental model, coined by Alfred Korzybski (a Polish-American philosopher and scientist who is best known for his theories on general semantics), called “the map is not the territory”.

Photo by Nik Shuliahin 💛💙 on Unsplash

Korzybski encourages us to remind ourselves that a model or a map could not be useful if it it was not wrong. Instead of finding the right model, we should start questioning what the creator of a respective model (or tool, method, or framework) chose to include and what not. What did they see as essential and what as irrelevant? This is what allows us to understand when and if a model could work for us.

Korzybski himself built on the previous statement by explaining: “A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness”, meaning, in our context, that we need to be aware of its shortcomings but it only becomes useful because of those shortcomings.

A mental model, like the one by Korzybski mentioned above, is a representation of how something works (that we create in our minds.). It can be based on our personal experiences, observations, or information we have read or been told. Mental models help us understand and predict the behavior of complex systems a little bit better — but again, they should be handled with care. Donella H. Meadows recommends to “expose your mental models to the open air”, and we could not agree more. In times where systems are extremely flexible and where (unconscious) bias (often) leads to devastating impact, we must be constantly learning and evolving our understanding and must be willing to redraw boundaries in order to notice that a system has shifted.

As the global socio-ecological crises are intensifying, all our systems are changing drastically. In other words, the territory itself is changing.
This obviously leads us back to the core challenge: if we take a map (think tool, method, or framework) and try to use it in a different or evolving territory, it might not be useful at all, leading us to false conclusion and/or decisions. We need to understand for which territory it was designed, and when. If the territory is similar to the one we’re in, it could be useful. If not, we could still try to make use of parts of it that could be applied in a different territory — but all of this only becomes possible if we understand the systems behind these tools, methodologies, and frameworks and become able to question and tweak them to our needs/a different territory.

“Following methodology, no matter how good, can only get you so far. Systems Thinking requires you to actually think in a different way.” — Patrick Hoverstadt

Dependency is a Risk

From a philosophical point of view, we could explore the theme of dependency. If we use templates made by others without reflecting on them, without creating our own sometimes, will we be steered by other people’s thinking? What does it mean if we actually lose our ability to explore systems on our own, impact them based on our ideals, values and wishes? Would we still be able to have the impact that we desire? Would we be able to shape the system? Or would we only push the agenda set by someone else?

To use the map vs. territory model again: if we rely to heavily on maps created by others without thoroughly understanding the context, values and thinking based on which they were created, will we arrive at the destination we would like to arrive? And would we even know if we arrived where we wanted to?

By depending on the map made by others, we might lose our ability to navigate the territory on our own, based on different criteria, insights, and observation.

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” — Audre Lorde

We don’t believe that all tools are created in a way that promotes a specific agenda intentionally. However, all of them are created within a certain paradigm, meaning they are pushing a specific way of thought and agenda unintentionally nonetheless. This is where the challenge lies and why we need to review and reflect upon the tools we use. Even if we cannot detect a (bad) intention by design of the creator, the consequences of using it without checking if it fits our territory could be extremely harmful to the desired impact on the system we are trying to impact. Obviously, many tools are created with the will to contribute to positive change, and we don’t doubt that intention, but nevertheless, they might nudge us to reproduce parts of the paradigm they were created in.

Ultimately, we cannot stress this enough: we would not exist as an organization and would not be able to create in our system, if we would not rely on existing knowledge, tools, frameworks, templates, and so much more. We do not want to discourage anyone from using existing resources — they are amazing and extremely powerful. We rather would like to encourage to reflect and change perspectives once in a while!

This article is the first part of a series on the use(fulness) of models, frameworks, and tools — exploring the why. In the second part of this series, we will explore in more depth, how one could approach the reflection, restructuring, and rethinking — the how.



Finn Koehler
navigating complexity

Researcher and creative consultant writing about complexity and systems change. Co-Founder of Kaospilot+.