What Is Your Frame Of Reference?

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Whenever we enter a new situation, we adopt a frame of reference from which we analyze challenges and seek solutions. They are determined by our experiences and expectations. As Abraham Maslow said, “if you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail”. Similarly, a building owner recently sought a solution to a common complaint of residents that the elevators were taking too long. One consultant came in, studied the elevators’ mechanical systems and recommended expensive technical changes to speed them up. Another adopted the resident’s perspective – why did they think it was taking longer, given that nothing had changed; he recommended putting mirrors in the hallway to distract people. The owner made the second set of changes and was flooded by compliments for speeding up the elevators.

Helping a wide range of CEOs and other executives address business challenges using my consulting, coaching and/or mentoring skills, I believe it’s important that we recognize our current frame of reference – and the need sometimes to change it – in order to get the desired solution.  For instance, I chair a few groups of Vistage business owners and CEOs* who meet monthly as each other’s advisors. We use an “insure processing” formula that’s very effective:

Each member brings a significant challenge “How do I do XYZ…?” and seeks input.

The other members start asking questions (e.g., What does it mean to you? How did you contribute to the problem? What outcome do you really want? Have you explored X and if so, what did you discover?)

After hearing all the questions – which often reflect completely different frames of reference – the initial member restates the issue – and 85% of the time it changes.

Everyone takes turns them offering their solutions

Finally, the initial member acknowledges how he/she will proceed and why.

For instance, a CEO planned to hire a superstar salesman to open a giant account. After months of search he found the candidate and needed to pay him more than was in the current budget. How to proceed? One option was to eliminate four employees to cover the expense. His initial issue was whether to fire them at one time or stagger it, as he needed the extra cash, recognizing that this could create a “culture of firing”. As we explored the issues, a sales-oriented CEO explored whether other less expensive sales people were available or a different compensation package might work. The accountant CEO wanted to explore the entire budget to see what other fat might exist in the company (even after being told that the member had done so with his trusty CFO). A third member focused on whether it even made sense to go after this client given changes in the market.  (For the record, the main CEO decided to bring in a consultant to look at all expenses, and eventually cut $120,000 in unnecessary annual operating expenses, providing all the initial cashflow for the salesman!).

If you want to look at problems from different perspectives, read Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal’s book, How Great Leaders Think: The Art of Reframing. They identify four major frames of reference that leaders use, and demonstrate how each “lens” leads you to see issues differently:

Structural – treats the leader as a rational analyst and engineer running a “factory” organization who focuses on policies, goals, technology, specialized roles, coordination and formal relationships.

Human resource – the leader is a servant and catalyst, seeing the organization much like an extended family, made of individuals with needs, feelings, prejudice, skills and limitations, with the challenge of achieving alignment.

Political – the leader is a warrior, advocate and negotiator focused on addressing the competition for power and scarce resources within the jungle organization of competing and conflicting arenas; solutions arise from the leader’s political skills and acumen.

Symbolic – the leader adopts a cultural anthropological and sociological perspective, and functions as the temple’s prophet, magician and poet, focusing on the culture of rituals, ceremonies, stories, heroes, and myths. Solutions come from changing the cultural meanings, inspiring people to believe in the potency of the company.

To which frames of reference do you normally default? Are you able to shift from one to another? I’m a personality/social psychologist, so I immediately look at people’s attributes and the power of the system to influence people, and pose the question: to get the desired results, which is easiest to change?  The inevitable result, is that I try to explore all of the frames before adopting the one I think will be most effective.

What’s your experience changing frames of reference?   Share with us