Reframing and the responsible use of language: two of the most potent tools of the strategist of today

By John Bono Corleto and Ann-Maree Chua

Designers are engaged in what Donald Schön aptly describes as “professional pluralism”, in that designers often deal with problems that are particularly resistant to cohesive, all-encompassing solutions. The nature of these problems are often complex and subjective, and as such, they tend to be approached by practitioners through “frames” in order to be more easily understood and tackled. The act of framing makes salient particular facets of a problem which a designer might then perceive as the reality of that problem.

In other words, the way a problem is framed and even the language used to do so directly influences the design principles with which new products, services, and business models are created. Not being conscious of the assumptions loaded within, or not taking the time to reframe issues in different ways for the sake of experimentation, thus suggests that the resulting strategies may lack rigour or be ill suited to the real world.

Design researchers have thus drawn attention to the possibility of more consciously utilising this process as a deliberate design method. Conducting a frame analysis is one way of becoming more aware of the tacit frames that one might be using to understand a problem and its problem-space. By more consciously looking at the way a problem is being understood, a practitioner can then reframe/reconstruct the problem in a way that generates alternative, and potentially more innovative solutions.

In the view that the innovative organisation must be more ‘designerly’ in its strategy process — in the words of Roger Martin, continually thinking about ‘what could be’ — it is thus essential to adopt framing as a tool of product, service, and business model innovation. ‘Sense-making’ as theorised by Karl E. Weick states that all external stimuli and organisational shocks are interpreted in light of the beliefs, assumptions and past experiences of a particular group. A frame analysis constitutes a conscious audit of these, so that there is a clear understanding about why certain strategies are being carried out, and why particular set of tactics have been carried out to do so.

In innovation, the tangible value of this analysis lies within what comes after reframing. Reframing issues involves shifting the way certain variables are defined or perceived in regards to a design problem that lead to the generation of new solutions. In the realm of business innovation, we can reframe, among other things:

  • The fundamental value being delivered
  • What a product stands for
  • How a brand is perceived
  • A company’s competitors
  • The way assets are used
  • Stakeholders
  • The way the world is changing

Setting up variables in a systematic way—labelling the variable and then listing a company’s current answers to them, as well as the assumptions behind it, results in the questioning of a company’s entire way of doing things. More importantly, it poses the possibility of operating in other ways that have been unconsciously rejected. In other words, it shifts the strategist’s job from inadvertently saying no to a whole host of possibilities, to saying ‘what if’ to many. What follows are then conscious deliberations about value propositions, product designs, positioning, the use of assets and considerations about distribution channels, and strategic direction as a whole.

To do this effectively though involves precision in the use of language in both framing and reframing. People often underestimate the impact of labelling despite the importance placed on it by the behavioural sciences. Buzzwords and business jargon cloud meaning and obscure clear definition as they are not conducive to joint understanding. They mean different things to different people and thus aren’t conducive to collaboration. Moreover, it’s difficult to frame something in a meaningful way if the process was undertaken in a rush, leading to sloppy language.

To recognise assumptions entails labelling them precisely. The responsible use of language thus becomes essential because it directly influences the effectiveness of framing as a cognitive process. It thus follows that new answers to the questions posed by strategic variables should similarly be pointed in their use of language. When what’s at stake are the design principles with which new strategies, products, and services will be underpinned by, you need all the clarity you can get. Because at the end of the day, reframing must lead to better strategies that because of clarity in perceiving, thinking, and voicing, stand a better chance in the real world.

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