Six Frames

“How can we help the homeless in this area?”

What do you think of when you read this question? What information comes to mind and how do you start to make sense of it? Maybe you start to think a bit like this…

Hmmm…what does homelessness actually mean, how big an area we are talking about, and what sort of help is actually helpful. What about those soup kitchens, or homeless shelters, or drop in centres? I wonder how people become homeless in the first place and how long they stay homeless for. And what does it feel like to be homeless anyway? What if someone in my family became homeless… 

Once we start thinking about a problem, we can quickly become overwhelmed by the amount of information that comes flooding in. Instead of just opening the flood gates, we can use tools and frameworks to direct our attention. I have previously spoken about the 5 Whys, Zooming OutStar Bursting and TERMS Stars as techniques for directing our attention. In today’s post I will talk about the Six Frames, a technique developed by Edward de Bono, read the book here.

Purpose, the triangle frame

The triangle is made up of points, meaning that there is a point to our search for information.

Generally speaking we can find information by accident, noticing the details we are drawn to, or under direction as in when looking for the answer to specific questions. For example, we can walk down a supermarket aisle and have our eye drawn to bright colours or unusual packaging, or we can choose to direct our attention towards particular products or prices.

When using the triangle frame, we should ask our selves what information we are looking for, where we are looking for it and why we need to know. In the homelessness question we may ask a group to think of all the existing initiatives used to donate goods, services or time to the homeless.

Here are two suggestions (mine) for using this frame:

  1. Knowing that each of us will have our own natural perception bias, we can expect a group to come up with a variety of information.
  2. Make use of additional questioning tools depending on the type of problem being solved. For example, TERMS and SWOT Analysis can be useful information gathering tools for business strategy problems, whilst an Ishikawa Diagram could be a useful tool for drawing out influencing factors for process failure.

Accuracy, the circle frame

The circle is in the shape of a target, emphasising our need for information to be ‘on target’

We make a lot of assumptions about the accuracy and validity of information, especially when from supposedly credible sources. We should check our facts, and challenge our assumptions regularly. Partial or uncertain information can be gathered, but it should be recognised along with its level of uncertainty.

Here are some suggestions (mine) for extending this frame:

  1. When we are gathering ‘facts’ it can be useful to clearly identify those things we always do, and those things we never do. For example, we might capture that we always give food and shelter to the homeless but never give massage or driving lessons. Details like these can play a critical role in shaping any solutions which we develop later. ROI Hunters Field Journal writes about this simple but effective technique here.
  2. Get underneath the facts and find the underlying problems using the 5 Whys
  3. Select a few key facts and ask what the impact would be if it were different (i.e. is not currently accurate). Some facts and assumptions can change over time, it could be useful to know which ones would have the biggest impact if they did. This is at the heart of black swan theory.

Point of view, the square frame

A square consists of different, but equal sides. Using the square frame, multiple points of view are treated with equal importance. By adopting a number of points of view systematically, we can explore a problem more comprehensively, hopefully reducing the perceptual bias of considering only a single view.

Whilst there are pro’s and con’s to all arguments, we are still subject to our own perceptual bias. In fact, it can be difficult to find neutral information at all. Consider this story (found here) illustrating the maxim ‘one mans loss is another man’s gain’:

Safety-Kleen in Elgin, Illinois was one of the fastest growing and most successful companies in the mid 1970s and 1980s. Its founder noticed that garages threw out the oil when they made oil change. It was not only a bad ecological practice it was wasteful. What other use could there be for used motor oil?  The management of Safety-Kleen answered that question. Waste oil could be used in asphalt and other oil based building materials. It also could be cleaned and recycled. Safety-Kleen built a multi-million dollar business by putting out a fleet to pick up used oil. They were one of the first to collect the used oil and resell it; they also charge the operator for the service.

This frame can be extended as follows, using a small problem solving group:

  1. State the problem and have each individual in the group write out all stakeholders (people affected by the problem) on a post it
  2. Stick all post its to the wall, removing any duplicates
  3. Write out any more stakeholders which people think of once they have seen the complete list, add those to the wall to.
  4. Agree on the key stakeholders, and choose which ones to use as ‘points of view’ for gathering problem information

Interest, the heart frame

The heart is symbolises attraction, and is used as the frame for recognising what information we are attracted to, and interested in. Sources of interest include surprise, new information, credible or authoritative information, implied knowledge.

De Bono suggests using this frame to gradually build up our own repositories of interesting trivia.  I suggest using the frame to identify perceptual bias across a group, and as a precursor to reaching consensus. Let me explain. Suppose a group has just completed a brainwriting session and identified everything they know about the homeless problems in your area. Before you can reach consensus on the best way to state your problem (maybe adding some more details, or rewording for clarity), you need to know what they key points are and which direction you want to take your creative thinking. Here’s how:

  1. You’ve done the brainwriting, and all ideas are listed individually
  2. Split the group into teams, say 4 teams of 3, and produce a single consolidated list of key details
  3. Each group publishes their list on the wall. Cross out any duplicates.
  4. Everyone gets 5 red dots, they use these to identify the 5 most important details.
  5. State the problem using some (or all) of those 5 details. Make any changes until the group has ‘good enough’ consensus on the problem statement

Value, the diamond frame

Diamonds are a symbol of value. Using the diamond frame, we will identify the value of information e.g. what are we going to do with this knowledge.

Information can demonstrate value by satisfying a need, answering a question, confirming a fact, stating the opposite of a previously held opinion, or just by being interesting.

A great way of systematically discovering the value of information would be to use the six value medals, another de Bono technique which he recommends.

Outcome, the slab frame

The slab is in the shape of a platform upon which we put our final conclusions. A bit like the table we would lay our cards on. Using this summary frame, a group would check the following:

What do we know? What is important to know? What do we need to do next? Are we all agreed?

 Closing Thoughts

The featured image is captured from this short film on the power of words to change our world, by Purple Feather. In it, a blind man is begging for money using a sign saying “I’m blind, please help”. His problem is reframed by a passer-by who changes the words to “It’s a beautiful day and I can’t see it”. This powerful film  is a really nice illustration of the way in which our perception and attitude can be changed by the way in which information is framed.

Using a technique like the SIx Frames, along with appropriate supporting techniques, can be a great way to systematically direct our attention across a large volume of information before we choose how to frame our problem and move forwards. Understanding why we are solving, who stands to benefit, what is important, what we know and what we don’t know can give a rich understanding of the problem space. You should try it.


5 thoughts on “Six Frames

  1. Brendan,
    Thank you for tying together Edward’s Six Frames book with the White Hat. In the original Six Thinking Hats, Edward stated that the White Hat is the hardest of the Six Thinking Hats to wear and that it’s a hat under which we can continually get better. You nicely illustrate the depth to which one can go under the White Hat. As we produce more and more data and start to become frozen with the myriad choices available, we need the Six Frames to make sense of the data and turn it into information.

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