Three dimensions of Framing
Framing is a high-level and abstract topic, the nature of which is often hard to articulate. The book Framers: Human Advantage in an Age of Technology and Turmoil does a good job of explaining the process in more depth. I found the authors’ three dimensions of Causality, Counterfactuals, and Constraints particularly insightful.
Causality – thinking about cause and effect
This first dimension of Framing is the most unconscious. We understand the world through cause and effect. Some of those understandings are better than others. For example, some might put a product’s success down to being launched on a lucky date. In contrast, others might locate its fortune in how it anticipated a crucial shift in consumer expectations. Generalising across different situations, we use this causal thinking to make sense of the world and predict the consequences of actions, whether human or performed by technology.
Good leaders have a firm grasp of causality and how things work. They can identify the fundamental forces acting on the problem at hand.
So, how we approach any project challenge is highly informed by our understanding of the forces acting on it. Leaders often express their perspective on a problem with a mental model, metaphor or analogy to make some critical aspects of the problem more relatable. For example, ‘We should try to become the Nespresso of our category’.
Coupled to human agency, causal thinking separates us from AI. We act on the world and experience the effects of those actions – for ourselves, our team, our company, our professional peer group or wider society. So, when we select a Frame, we choose with a sense of responsibility about how we want to reshape things – By contrast, AI has no sense of responsibility and therefore no skin in the project game.
Counterfactuals – alternative solutions
When planning a project, we start to run through a range of possibilities and alternative futures. These we judge in terms of their potential. While project Goals should not suggest a particular solution, consciously framing out – excluding – certain solutions may prove sensible. Considering which directions to Frame in and out helps to bound the project space.
To imagine a range of counterfactuals is a good way to tap into tacit knowledge of how our part of the world works. It helps to surface extra insights from our experience. By integrating alternative routes into our Frame, we encourage the team to remain open-minded, and feel more of a sense of agency as the range of possibilities becomes clearer.
Again, AI is little match for humans when the task is to envision scenarios that do not exist. Reliable training data, the essential basis for AI, is very patchy about the future!
Constraints – creative guide rails
As every designer knows, a blank canvas with unlimited possibilities is the opposite of inspiring. Complete creative freedom is neither feasible, realistic, nor desirable. Charles Eames once said, ‘Design depends largely on constraints’. These cognitive curbs (or kerbs for stateside readers) help guide and focus exploration. Some will be externally imposed, for example, by the laws of physics or our manager’s budget, while others might be self-imposed to avoid well-worn grooves and stimulate new thinking.
One way to make constraints more concrete is to identify different dimensions of the challenge, for example, target markets, and then outline which are in and out of scope. However you define your constraints, one check to run is that they are internally consistent and do not conflict.
Like causal thinking and generating counterfactuals, defining constraints is another very human skill – and one that is much more of an art than science. Doing it well requires a mix of rigorous and creative thinking and experience in framing and solving related problems. Algorithms will not be able to impose discerning constraints any time soon. ‘Computers calculate, but minds imagine’.