Avoid Narrow Framing – An Important Aspect of an Agile Mindset

Have you found yourself in a situation where a decision has to be made and the people involved believe there to be only two choices? The decision could be as simple as “Do we go out to dinner or do we stay at home?” Or, “Should we build Product A or not?” Typically, these decisions take the form of “This or That.” Defining the problem so that there are only two possible options is an example of narrow framing.

Let me give you a non-technical decision my wife and I were asked to opine on several years ago. We were participating in a group discussion with a new Rabbi who had recently moved into the county where we live. He was trying to decide, “Should we do a summer camp this year or not?” Clearly a “this or that” type of decision.

As background, this Rabbi is affiliated with an organization whose other Rabbis also do summer camps. These camps typically have campers from three to 13 years of age. Each age group can have a large number of participants (sometimes 20 or more). So, these camps can, and often are, large and expensive to operate.

A fairly predictable discussion ensued among the participants as to the merit of hosting a camp. The first question someone asked was “Is the camp aligned with the mission of your synagogue?” The Rabbi’s response was, “Yes, of course, outreach to children is an important aspect of our mission and all other Rabbis offer a camp.” Okay, so we learned that he should do a camp if possible. Then there was a slew of other questions like “Do you have the capacity to put on a camp?”, and “What is the opportunity cost of doing it?”, etc.

The original narrow framing of the solution options (either do the camp or don’t do the camp) was guiding the questions and restricting the conversation. All of the questions were focusing on collecting data to demonstrate that one option was clearly superior to the other.

Unfortunately, narrow framing spotlights just two of what might be many possible options. My wife and I finally decided to weigh in on this discussion. Our first question was: “Can you conceive of there being multiple different types of camp options?” For example, “Does a camp have to address all age groups, or could it address just a few or one age group?” And, “Could you see doing a smaller camp (with fewer campers) this first year so you can learn into how to effectively provide a meaningful camping experience?”

Once these questions got asked, it became clear that by originally framing the solution options as either do the full camp experience or don’t do it we were missing many other possible and very viable options. The Rabbi really wanted to offer the same kind of camp experience that other Rabbis offered, which meant multiple age groups with larger numbers of campers. Once we widened the options, it became a comfortable decision to move forward with a scaled-down version of the camp the first year.

How often do you find yourself in a situation in which narrow framing is in place (either in your work life or personal life)? My experience is that narrow framing is extremely common and potentially dangerous.

Let’s look at a software development example. Should we add color-coded events to the calendar application or not? Not only does this appear to be a binary decision, but it also forces us to judge individual value and risk in isolation, rather than in the grander context of an entire backlog of features.

This form of narrow framing is dangerous because it is pitting two options against each other (e.g., the option of building the color-coded event feature or not). Worse yet, we may intuitively believe that including color-coded events is a good idea and then we succumb to our own confirmation bias – a natural human inclination to look for evidence that confirms our bias while ignoring other evidence. As a result, we might judge the individual value of adding color-coded events to be quite high with a corresponding high risk if we don’t include it in the next release. So not only might we have made a bad decision, but we probably have also reinforced the false sense of confidence in our decision-making capabilities.

Narrowly framing the color-coded event decision myopically ignores the larger backlog that also includes a feature for adding recurring events to the calendar app. By comparison, the recurring event feature is actually much more valuable to customers than color-coded events. Sadly, without widening our options, we could miss this critical insight.

To summarize, one aspect of sound decision making is to avoid narrow framing of solution options. Rather than pitting one option against another to assess relative favorability, it would be better to widen our options to consider the larger more option-rich context that almost certainly exists.

If you want to learn more about narrow framing as part of the agile mindset, you can attend my ½ day live instructor led training class on April 14, 2021 entitled: “Agile 101: A Primer for Outstanding Returns.”