Frameworks matter: Why it’s not enough to be an expert

Some people appear to know everything about a topic area. They’re respected, but they rarely get to be leaders. Other knowledgeable people have enormous influence. What’s the difference?

Frameworks. Thinking frameworks.

As you learn about a given area, you accumulate knowledge and fit it together in your mind. Eventually, given enough sustained study, you gather an enormous amount of knowledge. You may get to the point where if anyone else comes to you with a problem, you are the one most likely to have an answer . . . or at least an angle to work the problem.

You are an expert.

But what does you knowledge look like? Here are a few conceptual possibilities for how the knowledge in your head fits together.

Conceptual frameworks

Framework 1 is common. This person has accumulated knowledge and connected it in their head so that they can add any new bit of information to what they know. If you have a challenge and you ask them for help, they may be able to identify the crucial bit of knowledge and share it with you. Their thinking process appears magical, because there’s no way to know how they know what they know and how it fits together.

Frameworks 2, 3, and 4 include similar amounts of knowledge, but it’s organized differently. In Framework 2, there is a key idea (the red dot) and subsidiary ideas that connect to it (the green dots). All the rest of the knowledge fits into this hierarchy, although from time to time stray bits may float around until the thinker figures out how to improve the framework to account for them . . . or to rework it completely.

Framework 3 is a cycle. Framework 4 is a list with related bits of information. There are many other possibilities, depending on what makes sense for the knowledge and the thinker, but they all share one quality: they are easy to communicate.

Why frameworks are as important as knowledge

Anyone with sufficient knowledge who can apply it to a problem is an expert. What advantages do frameworks like 2, 3, and 4 have?

  • You can write them down. You can organize knowledge in frameworks into a book, for example. Framework 1 would never make a readable book, but Frameworks 2, 3, and 4 could be excellent books.
  • You can share them. You can give a talk, a training session, or a workshop on Frameworks 2, 3, or 4. A talk on Framework 1 would never be more than an extended ramble.
  • Learners can acquire and remember them. Consider a novice working with an expert whose knowledge is organized like Framework 2. The expert explains the main principle: the red dot. Now the learner knows where to start. Then the learner learns the subsidiary ideas. At the end of a training session, the learner may remember the main idea and three-quarters of the subsidiary ideas. But she can add more to these based on her own understanding and experience. The same applies to any similar framework — you can learn part of it and then grow your knowledge. The learner in Framework 1 has no idea how to integrate whatever bits of knowledge he picks up from the teacher, and lacking an organizing principle, will likely begin to forget them.
  • Others can teach them. If you know some of Framework 2, but not every bit of knowledge, you can pass it on to someone else. In fact, if the main idea is strong enough, you can pass it on without understanding much else. This makes the knowledge in these frameworks easier to spread. If the thinker retires or dies, the knowledge will continue.
  • Others can grow them. The thinker is not the only one who can add to the knowledge. Adding to Framework 1 is like tossing random items into a bin — it just makes a bigger, still disorganized bin. But other thinkers can add their own knowledge to Frameworks 2, 3, or 4, even if they’ve never met the original thinker in person.

There are disadvantages to organized frameworks, as well. They are far easier to steal. No one can steal the knowledge of the thinker in Framework 1 — there’s no way to know what the thinker knows. This makes it easier to hoard that knowledge and be the only expert. But the other frameworks are easily stolen, modified, perverted, or distorted. You can copyright, trademark, and patent them, but in this hyperconnected era, you can never really control them.

You can get credit for them by publishing them and disseminating them. They’ll become known as your ideas. But other people will always be trying to take credit for them.

Pretenders

Gathering knowledge is hard. But creating frameworks is easy — so long as you don’t care if they’re any good.

There are many lame or counterfactual frameworks out there. People create them and spread them. They may even become known for them. But if they do not have the actual knowledge that supports them, their expertise is false. They can do no more than quote platitudes and draw pretty pictures. They can have acolytes, but their ideas will eventually die in the face of actual experts with actual evidence.

Leadership requires knowledge and frameworks

If you have knowledge but no way to organize it you are a hoarder: a Framework 1 thinker. You may have respect from a limited number of acolytes but you’ll never have broad respect, because there will be no big ideas associated with you.

If you have a framework but no depth of knowledge you are a pretender. You may dazzle people for a while but no one will actually be able to put your knowledge into action. Your ideas may be debunked by someone with facts. You may become famous but respect will elude you because your followers will be limited to those more ignorant than you.

If you have both a lot of knowledge and a useful framework, you will be a true thought leader. Others will follow you. They will add to your knowledge. They will debate you and through those debates, we will all acquire a deeper understanding. And, if you are committed and humble enough to keep learning, you will extend your own framework with what you continue to learn. This is genuinely fulfilling.

So gather knowledge and find ways to structure it. Work on the big idea and the framework that goes with it. Because, when it comes to leading people to think better and know more, that’s crucial.

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