98 - How to build better decision frames



No frame is complete. So, don’t stop at just one. Mix and match. This essay shows you 5 ways to build new frames:

  • Ladder up - look for the analogous across domains
  • Bring outsiders in - perspective is worth hiring for
  • Split-test - Don’t predict one winner; let Peter and Paul solve independently
  • Marry opposing frames - heard of restorative justice?
  • Role-play your audience - whom do you want to win over?

But first, a conversation between a seeker and a mentor...

She is a thin woman, the Seeker. As she enters the room, we see that her brow is knitted. A kind of preoccupation hangs on her face. In a corner of the room sits the Mentor. The Mentor’s only a shade older. She seems to not share the concern of the Seeker. After mutua greetings…

Seeker: My job is taking a toll. It frustrates me in bouts that last from a few hours to a week. It makes me question things. You know, I would rather do my own thing. Why am I not doing my own thing?

[Continues after a pause] I do my thing on the side. What I do for myself doesn’t bring me food and security. The job I hold does. So there’s the pressure of delivering on the job that comes with it. There’s the fear of losing the job. Pursuing my interests is fun because of the lack of the same pressure. There are no full stops. I just keep trying things and learning from them.

Mentor: Your job is something you do to allow you to pursue your work. Think of it as a house you collect rent on. Yes, there are overheads, there are repairs, there’s time and attention it needs. But giving time to those fixes enables you to use the rent for things that matter to you.

Seeker after some thought]: It’s not really the same, is it? I spend most of my waking hours working. But I don’t have to spend the same kind of time being a landlady. Holding on to a job is too big a price to pay to pursue my own interests outside of it. A full-time job that allows me to pursue my passion on the side is like a tax that’s bigger than my income.

Mentor: Why are you pursuing anything at all on the side?

Seeker: Because I enjoy it, and eventually I can make something out of it on my own.

Mentor: That means that sooner or later you will have as a means of livelihood something you have created for yourself and maybe even for others. When that happens, you won’t have your current day job. So, it seems like your current job has a finite and near end.

The hours you have to spend working for someone is a small percentage of the hours you eventually get to enjoy being your own boss. Your future role as your own boss, if you do it well, is for the rest of your life. It is a similar ratio (or much lower actually) you’ll find between the hours you spend fixing your house and the time you enjoy the reward of that housekeeping. You’re just judging it in the wrong time frame.

[After some thought] You see, over the right time frame, it evens out. A day, a week, a month is not the right unit of time to take stock. It is too short. It is short-term. Any meaningful pursuit follows this schema. Harder at the start, easier later. If you slice out a small bit at the beginning and wonder what the fuss is all about, you won’t see that the pie grows.

How do I build a new frame?

Climb the invisible ladder—look for the analogous

In a recent episode of the hit Apple TV show Ted Lasso, the football coach comes up with his idea for ‘total football’ while watching a basketball game.

In normal football, players occupy fixed positions. In total football, players change positions fluidly. Just like in basketball. Offense becomes defense becomes offense in seconds.

Regardless of the source of it (he’s on a mushroom trip), what’s so cool about Lasso’s epiphany? Lasso breaks out of a trap that (only) the best inventors do. Stuck in a difficult situation, **he ladders up to find creative solutions. **

Picture a tall ladder with many rungs. On the lowest rung, you’re as good as on the ground. You can only see near: situations like yours. As you climb up, you start seeing farther afield. More domains, more patterns.

In business as in sports, most of us only look around us for solutions. We look at direct competitors, best practices. No matter what we find, there’s marginal gain in it because everyone’s doing the same. You can break this habit.

In 1997, when designer Fiona Fairhurst was commissioned the design for a new swimsuit by Speedo, the brief to her was to make swimmers go faster. Only she reframed the problem from a fast swimsuit to a fast anything, especially in the water.

Fairhurst’s way of _laddering up _was to switch from swimmers to anything that moves fast in water. She climbed up for a wider view of the problem landscape so that she could pick out the best ideas globally, and not limit herself to what was visible locally. What did she find?

The book _Decisive _quotes Fairhurst: For years many people thought smooth fabric was the key [to speed], but if you look at sharkskin and how rough it is, roughness is the actual key to making a fast fabric.

This new choice of frame questioned conventional wisdom about swimsuit design. Where traditional swimsuits were skimpy, Fairhurst’s design covered much of the body.

What Fairhurst did with swimming and sharks, Lasso does with football and basketball. Cross-fertilization is at the heart of it.

Say you’re an executive at a large firm looking for new revenue streams. How could you think of your exploratory ventures? You can think of the large firm in football terms–hire specialists, define roles, set up processes for interaction. And your new unit in basketball terms–generalists, fluid roles, focus on doing.

Hire an outsider

We’ve all heard stories of founders discovering successors and leaders in unlikely places. Even by that standard, the story Brian Wong, the author of The Tao of Alibaba and the first American hire at Alibaba, tells about Jack Ma ranks pretty high.

1999 China was by and large internet-illiterate. Building an Internet business at this nascent time demanded that one made the most of a limited talent pool. Jack Ma made a habit of looking for culture fit and training personnel up to new positions. Jonathan Lu was one such find. A sales head with a background as a hotel manager, Lu’s appointment happened over a conversation that went something like this.

Ma: Jonathan, what do you know about the financial sector?

Lu: Not a whole lot, Jack.

Ma: Have you heard of this company called PayPal?

Lu: Actually, no.

Ma: Great, you’re hired. You’re going to lead Alipay and be the founding CEO.

Lu led Alipay and led it to a position where PayPal was in the rear view. But what was behind Ma’s thinking? He wanted someone who shared Alibaba’s DNA but was unburdened by baggage about the payments sector. Ma wanted an outsider.

And as unorthodox as coronation stories go, Lu’s wasn’t an exception. Judy Tong is another example. She joined Alibaba as a receptionist, worked her way up through admin, and went on at Ma’s insistence to found Cainiao, Alibaba’s logistics arm.

The highlights in Ma’s frame were resourceful people who epitomized Alibaba’s culture. The lack of trained local Chinese talent was in the shadows of Ma’s frame. Because of his choice of frame, he saw opportunity where most others with more conventional frames would have seen adversity.

A reason why Ted Lasso’s the one to be hit by idea lightning is that he’s an outsider. He’s not a typical football coach. He’s a Yankee among Brits. He questions inherited wisdom.


Sometimes I take the same problem to two or more colleagues. It’s a fun exercise where I don’t disclose to any of them the fact that I’m seeking counsel elsewhere. I don’t want them to try extra hard to come up with something funky or, worse, feel like their input falls short. The outcome rarely disappoints, provided I haven’t picked people too similar.

More often than not, I get a perspective that captures the consulting principle of mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.

Someone I know once sat for a job interview where the panel comprised not just her to-be boss but also her to-be reportee. The idea behind that was to have a broader frame for evaluation of the candidate.

Say, for instance, you are looking for a crucial hire. What would the process look like?

You list down your key criteria. You try your best to list down your highlights (your dominant frames) and then look for your shadows. You try to imagine how someone else with different yardsticks, reference points, and boundaries would approach the situation.

Or you crowd-source that wisdom.

You could ask your second line to list down their criteria. You could even ask them to assume specific roles. Once done, you’ll see that no one list is complete. But the collective list is better than any individual one. Because no frame is complete, an integrative approach has the power to combine the best elements of each individual frame.

_Marry opposing frames _

The phrase restorative justice has, if you notice, an unusual ring. It is not eye for an eye. It is not turn the other cheek, either. Countries colonized at one time and racially torn cultures understand the meaning of the phrase today. But that wasn’t always the case.

In 1947, the Allies dispensed with victor’s justice against Nazi representatives at the Nuremberg trials. Chile, on the other hand, passed an amnesty decree that legally pardoned human rights crimes committed during 1973-1979, arguably the worst six-year period in dictator Augusto Pinochet’s rule.

While picking a default frame, it is often that we do not separately consider what’s in the spotlight and what lurks in the shadows. In Chile, the Amnesty Law continues to be debated in parliament. The shadow of the past hangs heavy, refusing permission to the country to shed its past. The search for closure continues.

The book Winning Decisions chronicles the case of multi-racial South Africa that, thanks to Desmond Tutu, avoided a painful either-or decision of retribution or amnesty. Instead, they adopted a new frame called retributive justice that ‘drew elements from each of the two historical frames [Nuremberg and Chile], emphasizing forgiveness and healing (from the amnesty frame) and accountability, validation, and punishment (from the retributive justice frame).’

This integrative frame helped South Africa avoid a massacre as it transitioned into ‘representative democracy.’

If South Africa had chosen to go down the path of retribution, the young democracy would’ve had to bear the burden of expensive litigation, not to mention the threat of a violent coup because the perpetrators were cops and the military who had access to firearms.

India is no stranger to this predicament. Our country’s struggle for independence from British rule was split between two opposing ideologies. Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s brand of militant nationalism. What would a blended frame have meant for India?

Persuasion—is it one word for frame alignment?

You’ve rethought your old frame, build one better suited to your problem, and all you have to do now is get others to buy into your winning frame. What may appear to be the final straight is not straight and often not final.

If the frames with which we view our world and the problems we see are the product of what we deeply care about, it follows that it is probably hard to change people’s minds without first aligning with their frame.

You know when you ask people, what does it take to convince you? And they say data? Yeah, right.

No one is convinced by data. Or just by data. They’re persuaded by your reputation, their relationship with you, whether you support the same sports team as them, by your position on the org chart. So many things. Not data. Definitely not.

Advertisers understand this deeply. When Ogilvy was tasked with increasing waste recycling in British households, they did not make a campaign about landfills and loss of natural habitats. The admaker concluded that more people were going to view their government’s push through the _is-it-easy-to-do? _frame than the save-the-planet frame.

Under the slogan ‘One bin is rubbish’ the admaker nudged people toward one simple action: get an additional bin for recycling (and keep the one they already have for rubbish, hence the campaign slogan). Ogilvy topped it off by offering social proofs about the behaviors of others like them (Over XX% Londoners say they use a bin just for recycling).

Using your audience’s frames to suggest change improves your chances of acceptance. There’s a term for this in neuro-linguistic programming or NLP, the ultimate practice of persuasion. It’s called pacing and leading. Here’s Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert and a trained hypnotist, describing it.

But the idea is I'm you, so I would match you in some way. If you were doing a standard induction, the way you would match somebody would be matching their breathing, matching their level of maybe anxiety, to the way they talk. You might try to pick the same language type they use. If somebody uses angry words and war words, you’d start out using them; that’s pacing. So you’re matching them so they feel comfortable with you, they bond with you, they link to you.

Notice the parallels. Matching someone or their mannerisms is analogous to using their frame. _War words _means they use a military frame.

And that’s not all. Practitioners of judo also use frame-matching. Here’s Tim Ferriss, best-selling author and eternally curious, spelling it out:

Judo is, especially if people search foot sweeps, judo foot sweeps on YouTube for instance, it’s just one of the most beautiful demonstrations of paired physics where one person is using an opponent’s energy against them. But it can certainly, I think, have a lot of parallels in conversation and just human interaction.

Adversarial framing needs a foe but paired physics? That’s a good phrase to describe frame-matching. Instead of fighting or, worse, denying the interests of the object of your persuasion, you embrace what they have to offer. Work with it.

The higher you move up the organizational ladder the more your ability to not just find the right frame for a problem but also get others to align with your frame counts. You may have the most brilliant ideas or see the future with utmost clarity but if you’re unable to turn resistance into acceptance, you will struggle to get through.

My boss at work once told me that as a consultant advising an Indian automotive behemoth he was able to get the client to implement his recommendation simply by framing the change as lost revenue, instead of as opportunity costs. You see, opportunity costs are intangible, and hence hard to measure. Lost revenue triggers loss aversion.

Understanding your default frame is key to getting better ideas. Understanding your audience’s frame is key to getting things done.

I didn’t set out to but I’ve ended up doing a full discourse on decision framing. Three weeks, three issues. Each time I wrote about it, I found some more where the rest came from. So I carried on. Thank you for reading.

As I’ve surfaced from the deep dive into decision frames, I’ve been doing and learning about user research. Maybe the next issue will be about my experiences doing user research.


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