Smarter Thinking Frameworks

Jul 08 2011

Framing thinking

In Don’t Think of an Elephant, George Lakoff provides a practical guide to the way that our mental frameworks shape the way we see the world, in turn shaping the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we behave and how we interpret good and bad outcomes in life.  These mental frameworks are often ‘invisible’ to us (he calls them the ‘cognitive unconscious’), consisting of structures in our brains which we are not able to access, although we can see their consequences in the way we reason, the decisions we take and our personal values (what we see as ‘common sense’).  We also see them in the language we use, as our words are defined relative to these frameworks, and the stimulus of a word, triggers frames which are activated in the brain.

Although Lakoff’s book focuses on the politics and public policy implications of these frames, I believe they are also very relevant to the way we plan and interpret market research.  When we reframe client problems, we can completely change the way we and they see the world, changing our thinking in the process.  Much of the challenge of making research better is in finding ways to frame business questions in the most useful and relevant way, and especially in ways which reflect the client’s core values and concerns.

In Smart Choices, the authors present a practical guide to making life decisions, which can be usefully applied to research too to develop better plans, and clearer and more focused interpretation to any piece of research.  Although the book focuses on personal decision making, the framework the authors provide is helpful in any problem solving process with five core stages and three additional thinking steps which help clarify outcomes.

Being Proactive

The approach consists of eight steps, the first five of which spell PrOACT: Problem, Objectives, Alternatives, Consequences, Tradeoffs followed by Uncertainty, Risk Tolerance and Linked Decisions.

The most important step in any piece of research is to work on the right problem, by framing it in the right way and clearly thinking through the assumptions (stated or unstated) that the framing makes.  Even if you think clearly and logically, you won’t come to the right conclusion and recommendation if you start in the wrong place.  Framing decision making properly ensures that you consider the relevant alternatives and that you evaluate these alternatives with the most appropriate criteria.

Client objectives are often framed within very tight and specific boundaries (in obvious ways or in the same terms as have always been used), so it’s always worth trying to broaden the problem to consider alternatives outside the usual before narrowing your focus on specific approaches and options (that is, think out of the box, before you define the box’s dimensions).

Start by writing down the initial problem then question it, by asking your self (or even better your client), what triggered the question.  The triggers will include any assumptions made about the problem or business question itself, and how these assumptions are linked to the problem.  Question any constraints that are narrowing the options you are considering.  For example, if the question is, “when should we conduct a three month test of a new credit card offering in Shanghai?”, initial assumptions include 1) there is a need for a test market, 2) the test should last three months and 3) Shanghai is the best place to test.  One or more of these assumptions may be stopping you from  considering better options, so be clear what the assumptions are before focusing on a narrow set of alternatives and hypotheses.

In addition it is important to identify the key elements of the problem (break the problem down into its constituent pieces), understand the relationship between this question and other business decisions, establish a clear scope for the work and check to see how other people see the problem (check for different perspectives).

Above all, get the correct perspective to see the problem in its true light, perhaps by initially stepping away from the issue to see the whole picture before getting closer to the nub of the issue.

Checking objectives and alternatives

The next step is to think through your objectives which is largely about thinking through what your client needs from the research.  Consider their hopes and goals from the research, and the decisions that will be taken based on the research.  Objectives are often very personal, and it’s worth considering both your client’s objectives as a person as well as their company’s broader business objectives.  These objectives will help you define the information you need, and the choices that will need to be taken.  Some objectives will be more important than others and will therefore deserve greater time and effort (and you may need to prioritise or compromise where there are competing objectives, or where the constraints of the research mean that not every objective can be achieved).  A good way to do this is to write a list of all the concerns/questions that the client needs to be addressed (a wish list), and think through the best and worst outcomes for each.  You can then turn each of these concerns into a specific, clear and succinct objective or hypothesis, which can then be organised and prioritised.

The next step is to consider alternatives, which represent the potential choices which are open to you and your client.  Always remember that you can never choose an alternative which you haven’t considered!  So choose wisely and think broadly, because no matter how many alternatives you generate, the one you eventually choose will always be no better than the best of those you consider.  The biggest danger in choosing alternatives is to limit yourself with the ‘business as usual’ attitude.  It’s very easy to stick to the alternatives that have been used before, but this will limit you to coming up with the same conclusions every time.  The best approach to coming up with better alternatives is to ask ‘how?’ for each of your objectives, to challenge the constraints that exist (be creative with budgets and timescales, and consider the advantages and disadvantages of alternatives which are outside existing constraints), always set high aspirations, learn from experience and seek help and ideas from others.

Consequences and trade offs

Once the issue is defined with structured objectives and a set of alternative choices or hypotheses then its time to compare the consequences of each alternative for the objective it relates to.  When the consequences are clearly set out, then the correct course(s) of action are often very clear.  It’s critical to have a good understanding of the consequences of alternative outcomes in order to reach the right conclusion, so work hard to describe the consequences accurately, completely and precisely (without prejudice).  This can mean placing yourself in the future and imagining future possible scenarios for each alternative.  Use any relevant information you have to do this (including ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ evidence) and begin to consider any uncertainties that may impact outcomes (more on this later).

In the fifth stage, you need to consider trade offs, as you will have already eliminated some of the choices, but those remaining may likely have advantages and disadvantages which need to be weighed (and are often conflicting).  You have to decide which things can be given up, and which things are more important to a achieve.  Filtering the options to as few as possible will help make the tradeoff stage easier, so consider if some options have disadvantages with no clear advantages over others, in which case they can also be eliminated even if the disadvantages are minor (you can create a simple table of ranks or scores to check where this is true).  Use the even swap method to eliminate further choices, for example by eliminating any criteria for which all options are equivalent and by using even swaps (bartering) of other criteria which are equally important.  All this will help you to reduce the tradeoffs to the simplest possible final choice which should now be based on a small number of alternatives and criteria which can be easily evaluated.

Uncertainty, risk and linked decisions

There are some situations where you may not know the full consequences of each alternative before deciding, and you only know what might happen because of uncertainties related to the outcomes.  This means that you may need to take some calculated risks, which can be done by understanding the uncertainties, thinking them through systematically and estimating the likelihood and impact of different outcomes.  This is called a risk profile, which is simply a summary of what are the key uncertainties, what are the possible outcomes of those uncertainties, what are the chances of each occurring and what are the consequences of each outcome?  This can be done using your own judgement, other information sources, new data, and by asking experts their opinion.  Draw a decision tree if this helps.

The next and penultimate stage is to evaluate risk tolerance in making the decision.  Choosing in the face of uncertainty comes down to choosing between different risk profiles, but there may be some outcomes, even less likely ones, which you or your client may simply be unprepared to accept (remember that humans are generally loss averse).  Thus you can incorporate risk tolerance in the deliberation process by considering the desirability of all the alternatives, balancing the desirability with the chances of this occurring and then choosing the most attractive alternative (which may be one of the ‘safer’ options where you wish to avoid risk).

Finally, you will need to consider linked decisions, and the longer term consequences of the immediate choices that you are making.  All decisions affect the future - for example, short term decisions about brand communication may have both desirable and undesirable short-term and long-term effects which may need to be considered (a short-term boost in sales versus the longer-term efforts to build a specific brand positioning).  Some of these linked decisions can at least be planned ahead, by laying out the consequences of choices for future decisions which may need to be taken (for example by choosing a particular path you may eliminate certain potential future options).  Again, decision trees can help with such planning.

Avoiding the usual traps

Applying this framework can help you avoid the usual psychological traps we often fall into:

  • The anchoring (priming) trap is that we pay too much attention to our initial thoughts or to the way the client frames their problem.
  • The status quo trap is that we keep on doing the same thing we have always done.
  • The sunk cost trap is that we protect earlier (bad) choices.
  • The confirmation bias trap is that we only see what we want to see.
  • The over-confidence trap is that we are always too sure of ourselves.
  • The frequency trap is that we tend to focus on dramatic (memorable) events.
  • The outguessing randomness trap is where we see patterns where none exist (something I have seen often in research!).
  • Last but not least, the framing trap is where we started, by asking the wrong question at the start.

To avoid all of these traps, follow the guidelines laid out in Smart Choices:

  1. Work on the right problem
  2. Identify the key objectives
  3. Develop a range of good, creative alternatives
  4. Evaluate the consequences of each alternative
  5. Think clearly through possible tradeoffs
  6. Embrace uncertainty
  7. Account for your risk tolerance
  8. Plan for the decisions ahead


Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff (2006)

Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Life Decisions by John Hammond, Ralph Keeney & Howard Raiffa (1999)

No responses yet

Leave a Reply