We’ve all been in meetings where people are asked to come up with ideas to solve a particular problem. At times the silence can be deafening. At other times, the ideas are pedestrian, and everybody knows it (but they don’t have the heart to point it out).
So what to do?
One of the best ways to get great output from a group is to give them a good frame to help them think together.
A frame is simply a device to focus the thinking of a group and to focus their conversation. We’ve all used them, even if we haven’t called them “frames”. For example, that last strategy session where the consultant got you to do a SWOT analysis on butcher’s paper – that was a frame. (Not that it’s a frame I particularly like, but that’s another story).
Frames don’t have to be spaces on a whiteboard (although they often are). Remember, a frame is simply a way of focusing the thinking of a group. It can be a question, or a set of instructions, or a game. Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon, in their great book on strategic conversations called “Moments of Impact“, give the example of the invisible gorilla experiment by psychologist Daniel Simons. Over half the participants in that study failed to see the gorilla because of the set of instructions they were given at the start (“count the number of passes the white shirts make”). To Ertel and Solomon, the instructions acted as a frame to the way the participants thought. The frame served to focus their thinking on counting passes, not on noticing unusual things.
I’ve been using frames in my strategy facilitation work since the start. In fact, I suspect that a facilitator is only as good as their frames. To my mind, frames have two purposes:
- They can serve to bring order to a conversation. Sometimes, the group has canvassed so many ideas, you need to help them find some coherence. A good frame will often do that. The McKinsey’s “Three Horizons” frame is often a great way to help a group think coherently about the strategic actions they need to undertake. (I know this is not what the frame was designed for, but I’ve used it a number of times this way, and the relief on the faces of the group is palpable. I’ll do a blog post on this some time.)
- They can serve to generate ideas. Good ideas don’t appear out of thin air. They are stimulated by context and they are stimulated by constraints. A good frame can serve to do both of those. Let me explain.
I recently did a series of staff consultations for a client, asking the staff what good strategic ideas they had for the organisation. This is exactly the kind of situation that can be fraught. If I had gone in and asked them for good ideas, without anything else, we would have faced a very uncomfortable two hours.
Instead, I brought a frame along. And I actually made it physical. I brought an A0 poster, with some boxes printed on it, and took the group through a process of interacting with each box. I noted the points the group brought up on the poster using Post-Its. The ideas that we got, in a short time, were great. Here’s a picture of the poster I used:
(You can double click on the picture to expand it. Or right click and open in a new tab.)
Let’s go through it:
- The first box asks about the context of the organisation. What’s important in your strategic context? (You can see there are detailed questions printed lightly on the poster to help prompt the group: but as the group responds I’m covering these up with Post-Its).
- The second box asks about competitive advantages: what are your competitive advantages? Especially the ones that are unique.
- The third box goes to the ideas. The poster shows that ideas should come naturally from the combination of the organisation’s context and competitive strengths. This is the heart of the frame. The ideas are not going to appear “ex nihilo”. They will come when the thinking of the group is primed by the discussions in the first two boxes and then those discussions are combined.
- The next two boxes focus on risks and then on moving to action. I used these less in the sessions I was recently running (I had only two hours), but you can see the potential.
As I hope you can see, frames are a great way to focus the thinking of a group. Either to get great new ideas (as in the poster above) or to bring order to the swirling eddies of a live conversation. Frames are one of the best ways I know to help a group think together effectively.
If you would like a pdf copy of this poster, please email me at “email@example.com”. I’d be happy to send it to you with instructions on how to print it cheaply at your local printer. In return, I’ll pop you on my email list, if that’s OK. You can subscribe to my email list anyway, by hitting the “Subscribe” button in the top right of the page. That way you’ll never miss a post (I blog one to two times a week).