TBM 39B/52: Crawl, Walk, Run, and the Fragility of Frameworks
How do people learn how to ski?
You wear boots and skis. Somehow, you get hauled up the mountain. There's snow or a snow-like surface. Other skiers and snowboarders surround you. You end up skiing—albeit slowly at first. You fall and learn how to fall safely. If you choose to take a group lesson, you join a community of similarly skilled skiers and experienced teachers. And when the class ends, invariably, you join your friends (with more diverse levels of experience) in a less formal learning environment.
Or your dad…
What happens when a less experienced person joins a healthy team?
They receive mentorship and coaching. Someone lines up appropriately challenging tasks and creates the space for safe practice. The new team member observes how other team members do their work. They participate in team rituals. The feedback loops are tight and helpful. They use the same tools as the more experienced team members. There's time for formal instruction and informal practice.
OK, now imagine a consultant (or internal coach/change agent) trying to help a less healthy (and less experienced) company.
The consultant can only do so much—they can't be everywhere at once. They are limited in their ability to foster a safe environment. What if senior leadership doesn't get it? What if no one on the team has done it before? What if there's no psychological safety? Poor tooling? Unsafe working conditions? The company hired you to do X, even if Y is the problem.
This gets tougher. You want to get paid. You want to do your best.
It is natural, in this situation, to opt to deploy a framework. But not just any framework. You want a framework that describes what people should do when they should do it, and how they should do it. Why? Process conformance is your only lever. That way, you can tell your customer that they "didn't do it" when things go wrong. The framework is entirely artificial. No healthy and experienced team works this way or learns this way. But the framework provides a level of control, marketability, legitimacy, and deniable culpability.
I'm not blaming the consultant here. This approach is very pragmatic and well-adapted to the situation.
But there is a catch…
Most frameworks don't come with a warning label like:
This framework is synthetic. It was designed to be "foolproof" and adoptable under less-than-ideal conditions. Under different conditions, your team could learn much faster, so don't infantilize your team. Doing this framework "well" is not a prerequisite for doing well.
No. Sadly, most frameworks evolve a narrative that goes something like this:
You need to crawl, walk, and run. You need to do this framework precisely as prescribed to get better. If it isn't working for you, it is your fault, not the framework's fault. If anything, this framework will EXPOSE the problems in your company. Any criticism of the framework is null and void.
Why? First: marketing and customer management. Second, it is depressing to accept the reality of the situation. Framework users need that narrative; otherwise, things would feel very dire.
The most harmful byproduct is that:
Companies perceive the challenge as one of adopting the framework instead of creating conditions similar to healthy companies (or other learning situations). They blame their teams for being slow to figure the framework out when things aren't working. Frameworks become their crutch.
Instead of introspection, a leader will likely buy into the whole story of their team being babies learning how to walk. The irony is that it is the leader who needs to improve.
We start to believe the frameworks represent the ideal instead of being wholly artificial "hacks" for less-than-optimal situations.
Be skeptical of frameworks. And be skeptical of explanations like “crawl, walk, run” that infantilize people and don’t describe healthy adult learning environments.