Intentional Collaboration: Building Framing Skills Using the Tesseract
A visual prototype for understanding and selecting useful frames
(Just want the download? Click here)
We created a prototype for visualizing ways of framing collaborative group work.
Our hypothesis is that this will make it easier to develop framing skills.
This article describes the thinking behind how this "Framing Tesseract" is put together and ways to use it. We wrap up with a look at how different collaboration methods open up different frames.
At the end, you’ll find a concise cheat sheet you can download to explore further. We’d love your feedback.
🔥 Hot tip: This is hefty! Click here to open it in a browser
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The Importance of Framing and Impetus for the Tesseract
Consider these alternate greetings:
🎳 Any fun plans for the weekend? vs
Keeping busy? 😟
With the first question, we immediately start searching our minds for fun.
The second reminds us how overwhelmed we feel.
Two more questions:
What's wrong with this proposal? vs.
What needs to change in this proposal for you to support it?
The first invites a tear-down. The second, a build-up.
It only takes a single question to frame the conversation and change how a group interacts.
This power makes framing - the act of intentionally directing and filtering attention in a way that makes it easier to notice some things and harder to notice others - a key leadership skill. Just like a photographer chooses what to include or exclude in a shot, leaders decide which perspectives to highlight or downplay.
Photo by Stephen Kraakmo on Unsplash
In The Power of Framing in Creating Psychological Safety, Sheril Mathews provides an excellent overview of why this skill matters. I'm quoting other smart people when I say that framing is a key leadership skill.
Every situation comes framed by default.
We look through frames constructed from our unique biology and experiences. Expertise, bias, prejudice, beliefs, mindsets, worldviews, mental models - we all come with pockets loaded full of frames.
To work together, we need a shared way of understanding our work.
Groups need a shared frame.
Leaders are responsible for helping their team find the best available frame for each situation.
As leaders, we need to get really good at intentional framing, so we don’t fall prey to the biases and bad habits embedded in our automatic frames.
But how do we do that?!!!
Frames are hard to see and talk about.
So far, the guidance I've seen (and given!) consists of examples and reminders.
I decided I needed a way to make it easier for me to think about frames and choose more useful frames. I wanted a picture that could help me think through my options.
So, inspired by many conversations with Dave, I started doodling until I found a sketch that worked for me. When I drew it to work through the framing for a tough political conversation with my Braver Angels co-chair, it looked like this. As you can see below, Dave made it much prettier. Thanks, Dave! 🙏
Just in case you find drawing intimidating, let my example put you at ease. It doesn’t have to be pretty to be useful.
Let's see if this Framing Tesseract proves useful to you too.
Specifically, I wanted a shortcut that helps me:
Identify frames - both mine and other people's.
Consider what these frames make possible, and what they restrict
Understand my options. If the current frame isn't doing the trick, what can I try?
Quickly find ways to look at situations through multiple frames
Form an intentional frame that aligns with my group's goals
If you read our previous article, you got a peek at the prototype. Here's the full picture.
I call it the Framing Tesseract for these reasons.
In the physical world, most frames are rectangular or square.
If you put a whole bunch of rectangles together, you get a block or cube.
A tesseract is a four-dimensional cube, which means we can't really "see" it or draw it, and even if we could, we could never see all the sides at the same time.
That's a spot-on metaphor for framing. There are infinite possible frames, and it's impossible to adopt them all at once.
I swear that I wasn't thinking of the tesseract from the Marvel superhero universe, which is:
But that seems apt too, because framing is powerful.
Welcome to Odin’s perspective-warping workshop (DALL•E 3)
Let's take a look at how this is put together.
The Five Dimensions of the Framing Tesseract
Five? But wait, didn't you say a tesseract is a four-dimensional shape?
Yes, there are four dimensions to explore around the selected topic.
The choice of topic itself sets the first frame.
1. The Topic
What are you talking about?
Setting aside any preconceived notions or judgments, identify the core subject or entity in focus. What is the central theme or subject matter?
When you clearly state the topic, you can prevent confusion and bad assumptions from wasting everyone's time.
2. Sentiment: Positive to Neutral to Negative
What's great about this?
What just... is?
A frame's sentiment is revealed through verbal and nonverbal communication expressing emotion and judgment.
If you pay close attention to just these first two dimensions – topic selection and sentiment – you'll ask better questions, run better meetings, and tell more useful stories.
The next three open up more masterful collaboration options.
3. Scope: Micro to Macro
What about xyz?
XYZ as it relates to what?
What about xyz are we trying to make happen?
The scope dimension reminds us that we can choose how focused or expansive we want the conversation to be. A leader's ability to navigate and define the scope is crucial for keeping discussions productive and aligned with your larger goals. Being too narrow might miss out on valuable perspectives while being overly broad can lead to aimless discussions.
As one example, if you're discussing the use of AI to create images, you can collaborate to:
Decide on how to write the prompt for a specific image
Create a style guide for generating on-brand images
Troubleshoot how to get AI images into your publications automatically
Evaluate AI's impact on your graphic designer's workload
Discuss how this use of AI informs other uses across the organization
Extoll the feature's potential to revolutionize how humans create and consume content
An AI-generated image about how we might scope a conversation about AI image generation
4. Stakeholders: Perspective, Power, and Impact
Who's expertise or approval do we need?
Who will be impacted?
What other perspectives (real or imagined, human or non-human) should we tap into?
5. Time: Past, Present, and Future
How did this come to be?
What's the situation right now?
What might happen?
Time is the hardest dimension to draw and the easiest one to get lost in. Skillful leaders learn to set the time frame around each conversation.
This includes stating any assumptions about time - e.g., the AI tools we can use now vs. someday - and the timing for the conversation itself.
For example, groups that run a single "lessons learned" meeting every three months are framing learning as a nice-to-have. By contrast, groups that run a micro-retro daily (or even more often) frame learning as critical to their success.
Using the Tesseract
Now that we've looked at these framing dimensions, let's revisit how we hope to use this prototype.
Identify frames - both our own and other people's.
Consider what these frames make possible, and what they restrict
Understand our options. If the current frame isn't doing the trick, what can I try?
Quickly find ways to look at situations through multiple frames
Form an intentional frame that aligns with our group's goals
You Are Here: Noticing Your Default Frames
While I regularly shift the frame I'm using, where I automatically start and what feels most comfortable to me remains pretty consistent.
As I worked through this picture, I thought about how the default frame I use shapes my work and my relationships.
The questions that excite me most focus on developing systems and frameworks that create the conditions for human flourishing, natural abundance, and joy.
This frame is (Positive - Systems - Future) oriented.
I see problems as puzzles to solve and opportunities for experimentation. The frame I use leads me to believe that it's entirely possible to build better. That's a strength.
My default frame (and all frames) creates big blind spots too. I see rules and power structures as suggestions open for re-interpretation, which can get me into trouble. Once I understand the gist of a problem, I want to move into action. This makes me a lousy person to hang out with when you're down and need sympathy.
By contrast, I have a sibling who is deeply sensitive to historical harm and injustice. They see how past wrongs echo into the present and seek ways to hold people accountable. This focus is (Negative - Individual Actions and Reactions - Past) focused.
Now I get why my sibling says, "I really don't need to hear about how this shitty situation is an 'opportunity' right now!” They really don’t see the world the way I see it, and I’m not seeing the real issues they face. We have to take more time to move over and look at the world through each other’s frames if we want to have a conversation we can both appreciate.
Both of these frames come with strengths and weaknesses. By using the tesseract to explore our different worldviews, I can literally "see" why we don't place importance on the same things. We're looking at entirely different parts of the landscape.
Empathy Bridges Divides
Drawing the tesseract helped me notice my default frame and what it enables. I've used it with others to discuss theirs too.
The next goal is to understand my options. If the current frame isn't doing the trick, what can I try?
The first option is to practice empathy.
Empathy is considering what the world looks like through other people's frames.
Another person’s frame includes not only their role in relationship to the topic (their Stakeholder perspective), but also their history, their default ways of relating, and whatever might be going on for them right now. In other words, the tesseract suggests that not every CEO or every refugee will look at a topic in the same way, as each person's frame is influenced by many dimensions at once.
In my work bridging political divides, for example, we encourage folks to get curious about those on the "other side" and ask:
The tesseract gives us a way to visualize our frame in relationship to many others. Hurray! 🎉
With this picture in front of me, I can see lots of options for reframing.
Oh my! So many potential frames to explore.
Too many options! We can't ask groups to consider all this at once. It’s overwhelming and impossible.
Using Collaboration Methods to Open New Frames
We now need to quickly find ways to select the frames we’ll use with groups.
Happily, many collaboration methods are designed to focus the group on different frames. For example:
You can explore different stakeholder frames using everything from simple role assignments or Six Thinking Hats to more robust methods like Empathy Mapping, User Experience Fishbowl interviews, or Stakeholder Analysis.
And these questioning techniques frame the topic in time:
Conversations will naturally move across multiple dimensions, regardless of the method you select or the question you ask.
The question to consider is: where do you need to focus the group's attention?
Most collaboration methods focus on exploring one or two dimensions at a time. For example, Polarity Maps® look at two parts of the system that are in tension (e.g., Cost Control and Growth), and then ask the group to consider the Positives and Negatives of both elements.
There are other methods that can unlock insights from multiple dimensions.
Critical Uncertainties, for example, looks at two forces in the larger scope of things that might change in both positive and negative ways in the future. The group outlines events that could happen and how they'd respond in one of four possible futures. Multiple scopes, sentiments, and time frames! There's a lot going on here, which makes this method more complicated to explain, requires more materials, and takes a longer time to run.
It's powerful - teams that use it may gain insights that shape their work for years - but also costly to run.
This isn't immediately obvious when you look at the template diagrams for these two activities. Both Polarity Maps and Critical Uncertainties use a simple two-by-two matrix.
Plotting these on the Tesseract, though, makes it clearer.
More frames take more time and effort to explore.
Just like with our lovely planet, it's impossible to see every side at once. The more we try, the more distorted the picture becomes.
To fit everything on one page, most maps distort Africa to make it look much smaller than it really is. Africa is so big!
If you plan to look through many different frames, you'll need to factor in some travel time.
Take the Framing Tesseract for a Spin
The Framing Tesseract isn't just a visual aid—it's a compass for leaders navigating the intricate terrains of collaboration and decision-making.
As leaders, the frames we adopt shape our actions, influence our teams and determine our paths forward. Our hope is that by actively engaging with the Tesseract, you have the opportunity to refine your inherent framing skills, ensuring that your decisions and directives are informed, intentional, and impactful.
Your Journey Forward:
Leadership is a continuous journey of growth and self-awareness. We invite you to delve into the Framing Tesseract during your moments of introspection and strategic reflection.
As you chart your course, consider how this tool can enhance your leadership clarity. Consider the frames your group needs to explore.
Then, share your revelations, challenges, and triumphs with us! Your feedback is invaluable as we strive to support leaders in mastering the art and science of intentional collaboration.
Coming from a place of positive hope that this system will prove useful to you in the future,
Elise and Dave
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