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A Framework for Thinking in General – Part 1: Formism

The way we see ourselves in the organisational context is influenced by our motivation, which could be a combination of the following: to describe what we see, to explain what we see, to achieve an outcome or to act in accordance with our ethical orientation. In this series of posts let’s look at how this might actually play out.

More than half a century ago Stephen Pepper proposed an all-encompassing framework for thinking about the world – his ‘World Hypotheses’. Pepper suggested that when we interpret what we see, we use one of four lenses.

In today’s post we’ll take a closer look at the first one: formism. This way of looking at the world is based on our natural tendency to group things together based on common features. For example, we distinguish shapes based on the number of edges: triangles, squares and so on. We classify people as introverts or extroverts and music as jazz, blues or rock. Why do we do this? The evolutionary benefit of this ability to place objects with similar properties into groups is that once we have identified something as belonging to a certain group we can deal with it in a certain way. This saves us the effort of having to start from scratch every time we come across something that needs our attention. It is one of the ways we deal with the complicatedness of everyday life. Anyone who has tried to recognise stars in the sky using their knowledge of constellations knows the advantage of grouping things together and naming them. As we become better at classifying things we learn to make finer distinctions and this can help us adapt in more and more subtle ways. At a personal level, for example, we may be able to relate better with someone from South Asia if we discuss cricket and with someone from Central Europe if instead, we talk about soccer.

Using of the formist way of thinking can be very useful. Consider the periodic table of elements. The organisation of elements according to their properties into families showed gaps representing elements not yet identified. Further, the positions of the gaps in the table suggested the properties of these missing elements, which were later identified. The Linnaean taxonomy of living things, which represents the relationship between species in the form of a tree, has led to a shared language for describing characteristics of species. In psychology, the two most common frameworks used to diagnose mental illness are both based on behavioural and reported characteristics. In organisations, the grouping of colleagues using the Myers-Briggs or DISC frameworks can lead to a better appreciation of why they behave the way they do, and formism is of course the basis for accounting systems!

But the formist way of looking at the world has its limitations. Our basis for classifying things may be flawed so there is always a risk that any conclusion we draw based on an object belonging to group is invalid. Consider the long-held assumption that all swans are white. The way we classify objects can change as we learn more about the objects we are classifying. But the way we classify objects can also influence our learning process. We have a tendency to see things in a way that confirms what we already know and reject information that might force us to think differently. Consider our deep seated biases that are based on gender and ethnic origin.

One way we extend our understanding of the world is by looking for explanations. In the next post we’ll look at another of Pepper’s World Hypotheses: mechanism.

If you are interested in learning more about organisational alignment, how misalignment can arise and what you can do about it join the community. Along the way, I’ll share some tools and frameworks that might help you improve alignment in your organisation. Use the contact form below to subscribe.

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