Framing: Seeing the Whole Picture

Framing occurs when we misidentify the problem, undermining the entire decision-making process.

Illustration: There is a small fire in your kitchen over your stove. You make the decision to put it out with a glass of water you had close by. Unfortunately, it was a grease fire, so the water only helped to take the fire to the next level. You misidentified the problem. And so your solution didn’t work because it was made to solve a different problem.

In work, this can happen on the regular. Our employees or co-workers will come to us for help to address a situation. They’ll present the issue, and we’ll develop a solution to solve that problem.

If we’ve made a framing error, then oftentimes it’s a little later down the road that we realize that our solution — though maybe a good one for a different problem — didn’t fix the actual problem.

The vast majority of the time, this decision-making trap is completely innocent. If you’ve got a good team, you can count on them to not intentionally withhold information from you while we develop a solution. The trap happens though, because often times we don’t see the whole picture. We’re looking at one frame, and it’s the wrong frame.

Best solution here. When being asked to help solve a problem, make sure you get in some good questions. Don’t take it for granted that your team has already correctly identified the root problem. Do a bit of digging and after some more dialogue, you’ll be well on your way to avoid this decision-making trap.

So what are some good questions? I’m going to give you 2 that will get you started down the question path.

  1. Can you give me some background here with this client, co-worker, or vendor? After they’ve given some context, you might be prompted to ask some follow-up questions based on those answers. There might be details that appear innocuous to your employee or co-worker but are actually critical to understanding and solving the root problem. The frame might need to expand to cover previous jobs or interactions with the client.
  2. The Why question. Simply ask, why do you think this has happened? A lot of times when trying to solve a problem, we’re quick to ask the who, what, when and how questions so that we can grasp the situation at hand. While those are necessary questions, they won’t help insulate you from the potential framing error. When someone answers a why question, they will reveal their presuppositions and beliefs about the problem at hand. This normally opens up opportunities for additional questions.

These are simple but effective questions. It’s key to realize that both of these questions will inevitably lead to more questions, and that is part of why they’re effective.

Give these a try, and hopefully, you can steer clear of the framing decision-making trap.