How outcome framing put a mega-project back on track

Most people can easily tell you what they don’t want in a situation – that’s negative outcome framing. But when it comes down to saying what they do want – positive outcome framing – they aren’t always so forthcoming.

Yesterday I was talking with a friend about this. And how positive outcome framing can be the ultimate high-value intervention for some clients. Negative outcome framing focuses the mind on problem solving, not outcome creating. These are very different thinking states. Negative outcome framing tends to prevent change and stifles innovation. Positive outcome framing does the opposite.

By way of an example I was at a client meeting, where the agenda was to ‘unstick’ a stalled IT project. A great deal of time and money had been invested in a new Knowledge Management system. People weren’t using it.The IT department were coming under pressure and needed some help.

I sat quietly and listened to the conversation. The new system was intended to allow research to be shared between oil exploration scientists. There was a great deal of resistance. After listening for a while, I asked what the overall goal was for the new system. Without missing a beat the project manager said, “We have a mission. Scientists will share their knowledge without fear.”

“Without fear?” I asked. “Where did that come from?”

My question was met with silence. Then the penny dropped.

You see, scientists gain kudos by publishing research papers. Not unreasonably, they feared their ideas being stolen by other scientists if freely shared before publication. The mission of the Knowledge Management system – a negatively framed outcome – just reinforced those fears.

Then I asked, “So if there was no fear, what state of mind would you like to see … joy … gratitude … pride … what state replaces fear?”

This opened up a different conversation which led to a positively framed outcome, a revitalised project and ultimately knowledge sharing between the scientists.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with negatively framed outcomes. Clients just need to understand that, if they use a negative frame, they’ll likely end up with the absence of a problem, and nothing else. That’s alright if they want to stop a tap dripping, the absence of a dripping tap is generally a good thing. Not so good when they want scientists to share knowledge, while retaining kudos.

To complete Robert Fritz’s distinction.

There is a profound difference between problem solving and creating. Problem solving is taking action to have something go away – the problem. Creating is taking action to have something come into being – the creation. Most of us have been raised in the tradition of problem solving and have little real exposure to the creative process. Problem solvers propose elaborate schemes to define the problem, generate alternative solutions and put forward their best solutions into action. If the process is successful, you might have eliminated the problem you are solving. But what you do not have is the presence of the result you want to create.

Robert Fritz ~ The path of least resistance.