Decision Making - Complexity Requires Framing

Updated: Jun 30

What do these things have in common? (1) Abraham Lincoln on lawyers - “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” (2) What does your vision tell you about these lines?

Lincoln was informing us that it is foolish to pretend you have a clear and unbiased point of view, that you can make difficult decisions when you are too close to the problem.


Our eyes tell us that the lower line is longer than the upper. Not true, but that is how we see it, and that is the information our brain would use in making a decision.

Our brains find or CREATE patterns in the midst of chaotic and complex situations to help us cope. Our brains work hard to create meaning even where there is none.


How we see things is often more important, gets more decision “weight” than do the actual facts. Experts tell us that setting up a complex problem within a single frame is a big mistake. Not even the best trained decision makers come up with high quality decisions using only one frame.

Difficult and important business and personnel decisions usually have complex underlying assumptions, multiple threats and opportunities, and emotional baggage. The process of creating multiple frames helps us sort out all of this and make well-reasoned decisions.

Framing Objectives

One classic challenge for manufacturing companies is the internal perception, sometimes of the sales and/or marketing people, that the quality department (often assisted by the legal department) is for all practical purposes the ‘sales prevention’ department. It seems that quality concerns are always slowing down the process of getting to market, making exciting claims about a product, and inadvertently helping the competition get ahead of us. However, quality is simply providing a different frame.


Every organization should strive to establish high quality framing:

  • To ensure that current and reliable data are used

  • Include a range of alternative viewpoints

  • Be sure the scope of the decision is defined

  • Question and raise potential unknowns

  • Avoid biases

  • Avoid the “fire, ready, aim” mistake

  • Take the controls off autopilot – so you don’t base the present decision totally on references to the past and current biases

Lincoln’s quote addresses this: the point of view of the decision maker can overwhelm even the most orderly process. If you are the decision maker, work hard to challenge yourself and others to create multiple frames that

  1. Define the point of view and objectives of each frame

  2. Identify constraints/limitations of each frame

  3. Are realistic about the importance of weighting of each frame

  4. Take the time to fit all the frames back together to create a complete frame

  5. Clearly describe what your final frame emphasizes and minimizes, the potential biases, and the blind spots you’ve identified and overcome.

Your reaction to the nearby image, is this an old woman or a young lady, says a lot about how we are subject to our first view of challenges and decisions.

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