Successful artists, leaders and innovators have one thing in common: The ability to frame and re-frame issues that influence the way people perceive a situation and thus influence behavior. Framing is used to describe the context of a problem through a particular lens or point of view. It provides a frame of reference to help us make sense of a situation. However, if our frame is based on an erroneous assumption, it will prevent us from solving the problem.

Re-framing helps us to see our situation in a new light by embracing other points of view. Psychologists P. Watzlawick JH, Weakland and R. Fisch write in their classic book Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution (1974): "To re-frame means to change the conceptual and/or emotional setting or viewpoint in relation to which a situation is experienced and to place it in another frame which fits the 'facts' of the same concrete situation equally well or even better, and thereby changes its entire meaning."

The re-framing genius of Tom Sawyer

Watzlawick and his co-authors cite a passage from Mark Twain's book Tom Sawyer's Adventures to give an example of re-framing: Tom Sawyer is sentenced to whitewash thirty yards of board fence on a Saturday afternoon, while other boys are going swimming. His friend Ben starts making fun of Tom because Tom has to work on a day like this. Tom answers:

-What do you call work?
-Why, ain't that work?
Tom resumed his whitewashing and answered carelessly:
-Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain't. All I know, is, it suits Tom Sawyer.
-Oh come, now, you don't mean to let on that you like it?
-Like it? Well, I don't see why I oughtn't to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day? That put the things in a new light...

Soon all of Tom's friends want to try this opportunity to whitewash and they are even willing to pay for it. Talk about a mind-shift! 

A personal mind-shift

I recently experienced a mind-shifting re-frame during a visit to my doctor. She examined me for an ailment that was bothering me and said my problem was not a physical one; it was neurological. I was struck by the word neurological and noticed she did not say it was all in my head.

She proceeded to tell me how to re-pattern my brain/body communication to cure my condition. As she spoke, I felt a cognitive shift in my brain and my symptoms instantly disappeared. I was amazed at how powerful a re-frame can be when it comes from another person. (I never did have to do much of the re-patterning my doctor suggested.) The mind-shift I experienced was the catalyst for healing.

Creative re-framing in business

Harness the power of re-framing to re-examine core beliefs and assumptions, break out of fixed mindsets, and illuminate possibilities that you have been blind to. This is hard to do alone, so I suggest hiring a coach, or a therapist

1. Shift your perspective to that of your end users or stakeholders and what they value.

When Toyota asked employees for ideas on how they could become more productive, they received few suggestions. When they reworded the question to: how can you make your job easier? and were inundated with ideas.

2. Use stories, images, and metaphors as catalysts to help groups deepen or shift their thinking.

Simon Mulcahy, CMO at Salesforce, recommends an exercise he calls "flipping the binoculars around." For example, if you're a bank branch trying to increase customer loyalty, look at a company in a completely different industry, like Starbucks, and ask how it keeps customers coming back.

3.  Look outside your industry. 

Lars Bastholm, global Chief Creative Officer at Google, advises creatives who are stuck on a brief to go to the store and buy three magazines that they'd never in a million years buy, such as Orthodontist Monthly, and The World of Monster Trucking. "I'd suggest they read them cover to cover and try to reframe the brief they were trying to crack with the target audience of those magazines in mind. Usually, it would not only be super fun, but it would also open up new avenues of thought that could then be applied to the original brief."

Published on: Feb 26, 2018
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