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Welcome to the March 2011 issue of Alignment Solutions! Here’s what’s going on:

This month’s theme is if you don’t like the picture, change the frame. “Framing” means to define a situation or paint a mental picture of it. The frames we create, or those created by others that we accept as correct, literally define the way we see the world. If these pictures are inaccurate or flawed, they can have serious repercussions on our lives. This month’s articles address framing from both organizational and personal perspectives.

The Feature Article, “Framing: What Does Your Elephant Look Like?,” demonstrates the consequences of viewing economic recovery efforts from a flawed perspective, and it suggests how we can begin to change that picture.

In “How Framing Dramatically Influences Lives and Outcomes,” the Business Solutions section provides positive and negative examples of the dramatic difference that changing one’s frame makes.

In the Personal Solutions section, “To Change the Quality of Your Life, Change Your Frame” illustrates how framing skills that are so critical in the workplace are equally important in our personal lives.

I invite you to visit my web site at and my blog at to find other articles and resources that may be of value to you and your colleagues. I welcome your feedback!

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Framing: What Does Your Elephant Look Like?

The way that we see the world is critical: it shapes our beliefs, thoughts, and actions. While we often don’t think consciously about how we view things, perhaps we should. More importantly, we should examine closely how other people, particularly our leaders, view the world. How we and they “frame” things determines the questions we ask, the answers we find, and the information we pay attention to or ignore.

Because the questions we ask determine the direction in which we seek answers, we need to ensure that we have framed the “big picture” properly. Recall the story of the blind men who experienced an elephant by touching it. Because each one felt a different part of the elephant and then generalized his experience to the entire animal, they all had different “pictures” of what an elephant is like. Not a single one of their descriptions was accurate.

When it comes to efforts to accelerate economic recovery, for example, are we looking at the “big picture” or just a piece of it? Have we included the entire issue in our frame, or just one small section of it? Too often, public sector decision-makers and leaders seem to be missing the big picture. Instead, they have framed the issue in ideological terms – i.e., as “loyalty” to their political party, which takes the form of partisan advocating for either increases in taxes or reductions in spending. What’s wrong with this picture? These choices represent inputs, not outcomes. The true outcome or “big picture” is providing public services as effectively as possible. By confusing inputs with outcomes, these leaders are framing the issue incorrectly, which means that the actions they take will not address the outcome. It’s time to change the frame by opening our eyes and seeing the elephant for what it really is.

During the 1992 U.S. presidential election, Bill Clinton’s win over incumbent George Bush was attributable in part to a campaign strategy that was summarized succinctly in this phrase that caught the public’s attention: “It’s the economy, stupid!” In essence, Clinton’s team re-framed the discussion from one that focused on foreign policy to one that concentrated on the economy. This shift helped him win the election.

We too, can “win” the economic recovery effort if leaders change their focus from inputs to outcomes. That is, instead of remaining mired in unproductive arguments about whether to raise taxes or cut spending, leaders must begin by agreeing on what the big picture – e.g., providing public services most effectively – looks like, then work backwards from there to identify the best ways to achieve that picture. This will allow the ensuing discussions to be productive, and to lead to positive actions. Instead of being like the blind men who argued passionately but unproductively about whether an elephant is like a pillar, or a rope, or a tree branch because they each spoke from their limited frames of reference, we can choose to enlarge the frame to be sure it includes the elephant in its entirety, and that we have a common picture.

Resources are limited, in both the public and the private sectors. Decision-makers need to identify priorities so they can allocate the available resources most effectively. While framing the issues properly does not change the situation or the reality that tough decisions must be made, it does ensure that we are focusing on outcomes that are achievable rather than on inputs that derail efforts to optimize the available resources. Which of the following questions is more likely to result in productive results?

            “Should we raise taxes or cut spending?”

            “How can we provide public services most effectively?”

We begin by framing issues around outcomes, such as the public good. This enables us to ask the questions that allow us to find answers that will help us prioritize our resources in order to achieve our big picture.

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How Framing Dramatically Influences Lives and Outcomes

“Framing” means to define a situation or paint a mental picture of it. Think of a physical frame around a picture or photograph: it affects the way we see what’s within its boundaries, and a good frame highlights colors or brings out things we wouldn’t otherwise see or consider. Similarly, a mental frame influences our view of a given situation, leading us to see things from its perspective. Perhaps the most common illustration of framing is the proverbial glass that can be seen as half full or half empty. Those who agree with the former characterization tend to have an optimistic view of the world, seeking the positive in situations they encounter. Contrast this perspective with that of people who view the glass as half empty: they tend to have a more pessimistic perspective, and usually look for the negative aspects of whatever situations they face.

Framing skills are critical to leaders’ effectiveness because they define the way that their organizations view their world or situation. This perspective informs the questions that are asked, which point people in the direction of the answers they seek. Those answers help us formulate our beliefs, which shape our actions. In short, framing is a very powerful tool.

Here are some positive and negative examples of the dramatic difference that framing can make:

  • Kodak’s revenues shot up after the company changed its characterization of what it did from “selling film” to “preserving memories.”

  • After shocking themselves and others by “only” winning the bronze medal in the 2004 Olympic Games because they saw themselves and played as a group of individual superstars, members of the U.S. men’s basketball team won the gold medal in the 2008  Games by re-defining themselves, and playing, as Team USA.

  • By re-defining the issue from one of economic recovery to one of a partisan loyalty litmus test (e.g., refusing to cut spending or to raise taxes), lawmakers at all levels nationwide have impeded the country’s ability to address its most pressing needs.

In short, framing is a very powerful and effective tool. How will you use it to help your organization?

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To Change the Quality of Your Life, Change Your Frame

In December 2000, after three major knee surgeries in five years for a recurring tumor, my doctor told me I probably would get off the crutches one day, but I would never be able to walk normally, ride a bike, or go up and down stairs, and I should just get used to it. Two years later, in December 2002, I walked my first marathon.

What happened? I didn’t like the picture the doctor had painted of my future, so I changed it. Instead of staying within the confines of his framework, I expanded the boundaries by changing the questions. Rather than accepting the bleak prognosis, I challenged it by envisioning a different picture altogether, one in which I could do all of those things he pronounced me incapable of doing – and more. Instead of surrendering to victim mode by asking the unproductive “Why me?” question, I asked “How can I improve the quality of my life?” The latter question enabled me to change the frame, ask different questions, and find the answers I needed to change the outcome of this story.

“Framing” means to define a situation or paint a mental picture of it. Much like a physical frame defines the boundaries and affects the way we see the picture or photograph it surrounds, a mental frame influences our view of a given situation. Just as framing skills are key to leaders’ effectiveness, so they are critical to individuals’ personal quality of life. We all are capable of changing our frames at will. If you don’t like the picture, change the frame. While the situation you are facing won’t necessarily change, the way that you experience that situation will change for the better, thus improving the quality of your life. It’s as simple as that. And it’s your choice.

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Date of Publication: March 2011 | 562.985.0333
Copyright 2011 © - All rights reserved, Pat Lynch