Innovation Framing – the challenge of blinkered thinking

Two quite opposite qualities equally bias our minds – habits and novelty.
Jean de la Bruyere

The life of the mind has such a significant bearing on the ability to innovate. We know that a fruitful mind is fundamental to the applied creativity and invention of innovation. Our time and attention are studiously focused on the creative spark, the genesis of new ideas, and the process of ideation. In this effort the mind can be stubborn, unwilling or simply distracted. Recently we explored the power of anchoring and the ways it can prevent us from abandoning an idea that is past its prime, or how it might prevent us from seeing the value in a different perspective, or the usefulness of another’s fresh take. Unfortunately that is only one of many ways in which our minds can prevent us from being truly, madly, deeply…innovative.

It’s my hilltop and everything looks fine from here
We don’t see the world the way it is. We see the world the way we are.
Anaïs Nin

We think we are broad-minded and open to new ideas; actually, we look where we’re told and think in circles. Now, I’m not saying that we are all sheeple. But a little deluded about our good selves? Absolutely. There is a whole world of marketing that is based on self delusion.

Consider the concept of “green washing” – essentially the habit of nefarious companies painting a thin film of environmental friendliness on their products in order to appeal to our better natures. Oh, and sell more of their stuff. It’s objectionable. It’s dishonest. And it works a treat.


Well, many of us like to think of ourselves as being good stewards of the environment, as long as it doesn’t require too much effort. Those who recycle everything, have taken to growing their own food bio-dynamically in their backyards and have forsaken their cars for other communal or less aggressively carbon-footprint-enlarging forms of travel are among the minority. A vocal group, yes, but small. The keen but passive majority wants being “green” to be easy.

Willing and eager companies meet that need by framing their products in ways we immediately relate to. They use terms like, ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘energy efficient’ and use colors that evoke Spring days and clean lines. The contents of the packages are not so different as their ‘bad’ alternatives but because of the way these products are framed for us, we buy them. Often that purchase is at a premium. Because “it’s good for the environment” and we want to do good.

When it comes to how we see the world, we are the heroes of our own stories. We consider ourselves immune to marketing and yet statistically we fall prey to the same well-positioned point-of-sale display in the supermarket as the next person. We like to think we are open minded, but as was illustrated in the movie “Crash” we have deep-seated biases and prejudices that flash to the surface without us realizing it.

You really want to see the world the way it is? Really?
Bias and prejudice are attitudes to be kept in hand, not attitudes to be avoided.
Charles Curtis

We don’t want to see the world the way it is. In fact we have a whole series of techniques, cognitive biases, which we have developed to help us not see the world the way it is. They are there to help us cope. To help us sort through the nearly infinite number of sensory inputs we experience each day so that we can make meaning of our surroundings. Framing is simply one other dominant device in the bias tool kit.

If anchoring locks us into a particular perspective, preventing us from seeing something differently, framing has an opposite effect. Framing is a set of personal filters, emotional, psychological, and intellectual constructs that we use to gather, sort, organize and analyze information about the world around us. Frames are our mental blinkers. The shades that focus us on what we think we really want to be thinking about. Framing influences the background context of our choices, often as simply as in the way in which a question is worded.

Framing enables us to act with ‘pseudocertainty’. It eliminates or lessens doubt as a way of short-cutting our need for analysis. The old saw originated by Mark Twain, that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics”, is another representation of the way in which framing occurs as it reveals the persuasive power of numbers. A key issue with framing is that it may be acted upon us, via marketing or through a desire to influence, or we may frame issues ourselves through our beliefs, education, ethics, etc.

How does framing influence innovation?

As a process of short-cutting our need to analyze or explore a situation or issue more deeply, especially our understanding of the immediate context, framing blinds us to possibilities and options. We simply don’t ‘see’ alternatives because of the influence of framing. We look where we’re pointed or only where our blinkered perspective will allow.

A classic example of this is from the work of Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his partner Amos Tversky. (We’re big fans of Kahneman and Tversky at Primed Associates!) They offered a group of research subjects two scenarios, both with essentially the same data but framed differently. In it, the subjects were asked to make a choice between two alternatives. Due to the way the scenario framing changed, the majority of subjects flipped their choices. Same data, simply re-framed meant a very different result.

I am committed to my strategic focus on…Oh look! Kittens!
When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.
Max Planck

Framing is a psychological version of the Heisenberg Principle in action. In quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states “by precise inequalities that certain pairs of physical properties, like position and momentum, cannot simultaneously be known to arbitrary precision. That is, the more precisely one property is known, the less precisely the other can be known.” For the lay person – when you focus and look at one aspect of a situation, other aspects become less clear. Framing positions us to understand one perspective which lessens the impact, influence or even visibility of another alternative. We get blinkered.

We need to fight being framed. (Or stop taking our own framing at face value.)

In innovation, it is necessary to see things we haven’t seen before. To combat the influence of framing, to expand the range of possibilities, it is necessary to call it out. Questioning assumptions is one way of addressing the undue influence of framing. Another way is to literally take the opposite position on data. If we reverse our position previously unseen options might be revealed. As our perspective greatly determines what we see, changing that perspective means we see things anew. Finally, we can often build our way out of how we are framed by exploring new approaches through design thinking and prototyping. A prototype is a great tool for helping us reframe our view of a challenge.

What’s your perspective? How blinkered are you?


  1. Excellent post on avoiding the cognitive biases that would limit innovative thinking. (And I love the quotes you found.) Well done!

Speak Your Mind