Framing A Decision
Rex C. Mitchell, Ph.D.

"Framing" involves selecting and highlighting certain aspects of a situation or decision while excluding or minimizing others. It also involves presenting or talking about various aspects from the viewpoint of the individual doing the framing, which may be rather unique to that individual. Frequently, parties will believe and/or create rather different frames for the same situation.

More specifically, framing a decision refers creating a context for the decision by (a) defining the objectives the decision maker(s) would like to achieve through the decision outcome and (b) identifying constraints and other factors that the framer thinks are (or should be) present or important. The decision frame provides the basis for generating a set of alternatives appropriate to consider.

It is very important to identify clearly the problem or situation about which one needs to make a decision. Defining the wrong problem or framing the decision unclearly will lead to a poor outcome. As Will Rogers said, "It isn't the things you don't know that get you into trouble, but the things you know for sure that aren't so." Unfortunately,we often give too little attention to framing a decision, in our reflex habit of rushing to choose a course of action and implement it. There is a seductive anxiety reduction in taking quick action, even if we are unclear about where we're going! Many bosses reinforce excessive use of a "shooting from the hip" decision style ("fire, ready, aim"). Such a hip-shooting decision style is appropriate for some decisions, but disastrous for most others. In particular, important decisions with long-term and/or precedent qualities are worth careful framing before jumping into choices and actions. We will be practicing a more explicit, considered framing of decisions before moving on to identify alternatives, make a choice, and implement the choice.

Objectives (I don't find it useful to create a distinction between "objectives" and "goals") are results, outcomes, and/or states of being that the decision maker values and would like to realize through the decision at hand. It is important to distinguish between objectives (outcomes) and actions or means of trying to achieve the objectives. Further, at each level in an organization, it is useful to consider a hierarchy of objectives, with fundamental objectives as the foundation. These fundamental objectives are usually closely connected with the value system of the person defining the objectives. The fundamental objectives both make explicit the values that one cares about in that context and define the class of consequences of concern. Other, more operational objectives can then be developed from this foundation. [See the module on Objectives & Goals for more details.]

There are major differences in the type of decision or problem situation. We could consider decisions as lying along a continuum in which one pole represents decisions that are highly routine, recurring, and informed by ample precedents - and the opposite pole represents decisions that are nonrecurring, complex, unique, and strategic. It is important in framing a decision to characterize the decision in terms of this continuum. A related dimension is the variety and complexity of the objectives/goals. Some decisions involve only a single objective; others involve multiple, often competing, objectives. Another dimension is how well-defined or ill-defined is the decision or problem; e.g., to what extent are the objectives and context well-defined and agreed upon by the stakeholders? (A bogus version of a well-defined decision is one that is defined in terms of a yes or no decision regarding someone's idea of a favored choice of action paths.)

In addition to objectives, the framing of a decision needs to identify and consider other important factors and constraints. For example, there may be time or resource constraints, there may be important events or dynamics in the environment that need to be considered, there always are important stakeholders whose concerns need to be understood and considered, etc.

The resulting mosaic of the objectives, constraints, and other factors that need to be taken into account provides a rich, insightful, and hopefully considered context before proceeding to identify alternatives, evaluate them, choose, and take action.

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Last modified May 12, 2010 Copyright 1993-2010 Rex Mitchell