GPM First

Background/theory

How to avoid poor project framing

In project management, the way that we 'frame' a problem determines the range of solutions we put forward. A frame begins with the language that we use to describe something. We use frames all the time, often unconsciously, to simplify complexity and guide decision-making. But we also need to take care when addressing important, complex problems because, by their nature, frames put a boundary around our view of reality.

Here’s a typical – and very unfortunate – example of a real-world framing problem. Thousands of migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. The cause, according to some news reports, is cuts to European Union funding for search and rescue operations. Funding had been scaled back because policy-makers argued that well-funded search and rescue encouraged migrants to take to the high-seas in the expectation of a quick rescue, leading to a safe haven in Europe.

A frame begins with the language that we use to describe something. When we hear just a single word, our subconscious fires up an unconscious web of connected associations and ‘stereotypes’. The word ‘migrants’, for example, often conjures associations around ‘economic migration’. But if the news report had said ‘refugees’, our minds would make different associations: people taking refuge from war, for example.

Frames are useful. We use them all of the time, often unconsciously, to simplify complexity and guide decision-making. But we also need to take care when addressing important, complex problems because, by their nature, frames put a boundary around our view of reality. In addition, as politicians and advertisers well know, once they are in place, frames often appear to be complete and are difficult to shake off.

As a side-note, notice that although the word ‘stereotype’ has a negative connotation, our minds constantly sift what we experience into categories, assigning them attributes such as good or bad. Evolution has taught us that categories named ‘lions’ and ‘sheep’ are more useful than ‘four-legged animals’. And the language that we use to describe categories is a key part of framing.

There is a great clip of Jony Ive, Apple’s Chief Design Officer, on the UK children’s programme, Blue Peter. The presenter tells Ive that the viewers have been submitting entries to a design challenge to come up with a ‘combined lunchbox, school bag and pencil case, all in one’. He asks Ive how he would have gone about that challenge.

‘We’d be really careful about not using the word box, to already give you a bunch of ideas that could be quite narrow,’ says Ive, ’so we’re quite careful with the words we use because these can sort of determine the path that you go down.’

So when we are starting a new project, we need to take care not to frame the project’s purpose in a way that restricts the range of solutions that we can create.

The first step is to be aware that framing effects are in play and to have a designer’s heightened awareness of their existence. Remember that good design is as much about generating a wide range of solutions, as it is about perfecting the chosen solution.

The second step is to look at the language and perspective we are using:

•                Do the words reflect a particular perspective or stereotype?

•                What implicit associations do the words have?

•                What alternative words could we use?

•                What alternative perspectives could we use?

The third step is to actively look for what is outside the frame and how it interacts with what is inside. Returning to the news report we began with, we see that the frame was all about search and rescue and funding.


Figure 1 Project framing

But if we look outside the border of the frame, we may find other contributory factors. And each of those contributory factors may have, in turn, a complex network of cause, effect and feedback loops.

And no matter how simple these connections might appear, drawing them, as I have done above, is really useful because drawing it out engages different neural circuity to just thinking about it, in our heads. It also makes it easy to share and explore as a team.

So, if we want to find sustainable solutions for our projects, there are three steps that we can take:

1.              Be aware that framing effects are in play

2.              Actively seek out different frames using different language and perspectives

3.              Describe what is outside the frame to understand the full complexity of the situation

And if you cannot find the frame in the first place then you are likely to be stuck in a well-established frame that you need to work harder to break out of.

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