Reframing Questions

obama new yorker cartoonKathy Sierra over on Twitter has been throwing two types of teasers at us this week. The first are what she calls ‘rules that aren’t always useful’, that I’d call ‘false myths and limiting generalizations‘, such as:

  • don’t feed trolls
  • two heads are better than one
  • nobody reads the manual
  • there is no money in [x]
  • the customer is always right
  • grow or die
  • you can’t be both profitable and socially responsible

In case you think ‘false myth’ is a redundant expression, a myth (literal meaning= word of mouth) is anything that has received such a wide degree of acceptance, or such passionate acceptance, that it is rarely questioned. Some myths are true.

The problem with the false myths are that they can blind you to the truth if you accept them uncritically. They can constrain your imagination of other possibilities that are contrary to the false myth ‘conventional wisdom’. They can lead you to make very bad decisions.

The problem with limiting generalizations is that they can lead you to oversimplify (“to get ahead in business women have to think and act like men”), to draw false dichotomies (“we either have to find new domestic oil or be forever dependent on foreign suppliers”)  and to stereotype (“working class whites will always vote Republican” which can lead you to draw false inferences from correlations, to write off classes of people, and to inhibit your creativity.

The second teasers Kathy has been tweeting are what she calls ‘perspective hacks’ that I’d call ‘reframing questions‘, such as:

  • What might change if you view the Big Thing You’re After as a component/subsystem of a greater whole?
  • That really cool very specific thing you learned… what happens if you ask what else that might apply to?
  • Instead of trying to change this behaviour, what if we tried to understand how it came about and adapted ourselves accordingly?

Kathy has a flair for this type of thought-provoking meme. As I thought about what I’d put on my list of false myths and limiting generalizations, and reframing questions, it suddenly occurred to me that these two are linked: for every false myth or limiting generalization, there is at least one reframing question that can get you out of the uncritical, unimaginative thinking trap and help you discover new possibilities and achieve breakthrough perspectives.

Here, for example, are ten false myths and limiting generalizations that I encounter nearly every day in business, and how, instead of arguing with those who spout them, I might reframe the discussion with a question to show those people, gently, another way to see the situation.

false myth or limiting generalization reframing question
talent shortage: if you want smart people to work for you, you have to pay them a competitive rate for their time what if you could produce an invitation so compelling that smart people would be willing to come together and solve a problem for free?
business needs hierarchy: without instruction and supervision, work just won’t get done what if you gave people an interesting, challenging, attainable objective and just trusted them to figure out how to achieve it?
if you have a new business idea, you need to find ‘angel investors’ to finance it or there is no hope of it succeeding what if you got the prospective customers for your new idea to ‘invest’ in it, in return for a say in design and a better rate of interest than the bank pays?
if you want to deploy a social network tool in the organization, you need to produce a ‘business case’ showing ROI and addressing security issues what if you just did an experiment, outside the firewall on your own time, using young tech-savvy employees, and then just showed everyone how easy, inexpensive and useful it is?
marketing is expensive: if you can’t achieve an x% market share with a new innovation in y months, it’s not worth the risk what if you just developed a simple, inexpensive demo/beta/prototype, and showed or gave it away, and relied on word of mouth to ‘sell’ it?
a company needs to provide an ROI to shareholders  that is commensurate with its risk, or no one will buy shares in it what if you organized the enterprise as a cooperative, with members who received products for their investment instead of shareholders demanding profits and dividends?
to make a new technology successful, you have to persuade management to make training compulsory for all, because otherwise people won’t use it properly what if you only used technologies that are so simple and intuitive that they need no training, and are open source and public so they need no development?
you need performance objectives and bonuses to motivate people to work hard and work smart what if you made work fun, and let people choose their own hours, and then asked them what else it would take to get them to do their best?
a business that doesn’t grow is doomed to die what if you set the objective of the business to grow better without growing bigger, and left it to the employees to figure out how to do that?
you need to show your finished, quality product to customers; they won’t ever buy an ‘idea’ what if you abolished the idea of ‘customer’, and instead partnered with the people who might buy your product and co-developed it with them

Isn’t this cool? It’s a bit like the technique in some martial arts of parrying with a deflection, defusing the attacker’s momentum by changing the rules of the contest and putting them off balance.

What are the false myths and limiting generalizations that you are struggling with, and how might you use appropriate questions to reframe them, disempower them, put them to rest?

Category: Our Culture
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3 Responses to Reframing Questions

  1. David Parkinson says:

    My ‘favourite’ false myth is: someone in authority will fix it.I don’t really know how to counter it. It’s deeply ingrained in our hyper-specialized society, where the expert for every problem is just a phone call away.Here in Powell River, the City just pulled the plug on its own process for developing a Sustainability Charter, very likely because the only people who continued to come out to meet and talk about sustainability were the ‘wackos’ who believe that peak oil is really happening, and who want to start developing scenarios and responses for real crises. Meanwhile, the responsible citizens are talking about new roads and bridges, a glorious future of high-priced tourism, local industrial development and a flashy new marina development, etc.And now the City is switching gears: they lost control of their first attempt, so they’re talking about going with The Natural Step, which is all well & good as far as that goes. But TNS is going to deal with local government and businesses more than it is going to deal with regular folks and the problems they’ll be facing (starting a garden, storing food, raising chickens, building greywater systems, trying to heat drafty old houses, etc.). Nonetheless, I get the sense that people will hang back and wait for the City’s process either to produce results (yay! someone else did it for us!) or else to fail (boo! can’t trust those fuckers, I tole ya). Not yet entirely on the radar screen: the DIY ethic (and it *is* an ethical matter) which gets results and also smashes the myth of popular impotence.The myth that someone in authority will fix stuff is going to crash and crash hard soon enough. But I wish we didn’t have to deal with it right about now.

  2. Theresa says:

    In theory I believe in what you seem to be trying to say: rather than believe in false myths simply reframe the problem. As far as the majority of the specific questions you posed….I fear I have the answer to most of them and the answer to the “what would happen if” questions is that the people with the creative input – the smart people working for free, the customers investing their energy in the creation of the product etc – would be exploited by the large companies who own these products and services. In fact, many of your “what if” scenarios have resulted in what we call “user generated content” on the internet. Companies like Google, microsoft, yahoo profit from the content provided by the end users who do not get paid at all. Bloggers are a good example of people who are driven to provide free services for reasons other than financial profit. That doesn’t mean nobody profits financially from the work of bloggers. Google certainly does.

  3. John Graham says:

    Google hasn’t got a dime out of me yet, so far as I can tell. What if I stopped buying into the market for ‘content’?

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