The Innovation Framework

Reframing: A Tool To Think Differently

Einstein famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” I think we can all agree. Yet, how often do we abide by a ‘business as usual’ stance because that’s the way it’s always been done?

The reality is it’s tricky to break from accepted standards and look at a problem (or opportunity) from a different vantage point. We all need some help to stimulate our minds to think in unconventional ways. When I met the folks at THNK, a higher education design thinking institution and innovation consultancy, and they introduced me to their Reframing methodology, I was instantly blown away. Reframing has allowed me to employ a fresh perspective when considering complex business considerations.

Reframing Explained

Reframing is a tool to think differently about an issue by exposing conventional “wisdom” that stands in the way of progress. Let’s face it, we have collective thoughts about audience preferences, technological disruption, competition, differentiation, etc. These are inviolable. That is, until someone breaks them.

Let’s look at some well-known examples:

  • Netflix: what if people could watch TV and movies anytime, anywhere?
  • Uber: what if you could get an affordable, on-demand chauffeur and not need cash?
  • Airbnb: what if people were willing to stay in private homes instead of hotels?
  • TaskRabbit: what if you could get stuff done by accessing a global workforce in small increments?

These business models seem so obvious. Now. But, they weren’t at the time when they were envisioned. So how can you look at your sector, business model, product, work initiative, even personal life considerations differently? One exceptional tool is Reframing. And the great news is, anyone can master it without prior innovation experience.

The Origins of Reframing

The notion of reframing a belief has been around for over a decade but it was formalized into a system by Karim Benammar, based on the paradigm shift theory by Thomas Kuhn, and popularized by THNK. In Reframing: The Art of Thinking Differently, Benammar’s seminal text about the Reframing technique, he provides a guide to this powerful four-step methodology, discusses its applications in both personal and professional situations, delves into how we can re-evaluate our values, and discusses how we can reframe large-scale paradigms that impact humanity.

Why Reframe?

We operate in a VUCA world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. To complicate matters, every company and every market is unique. Business models are also less enduring than in the past. It used to be that an approach to creating economic value would be fixed for decades. Today, businesses need to constantly re-examine how they go to market as new entrants are continually nipping at their heels. Thriving in this unstable environment means evolving as new business contexts emerge. As a result, organizations need to be adaptable and shift their thinking to tackle the challenges and stay ahead of the competition.

Reframing is a device to help you get out of your comfort zone, to challenge orthodoxies and open your mind to new ways of doing things. In his book, Benammar ponders two questions: 1) Why do we do the things that we do?, and 2) How can we do things differently? Bennamar believes that, as children, we learn accepted norms about how society is organized and we never question these structures. In his words, “Reframing opens up new spaces, new possibilities, new ways of feeling and new ways of acting.”

Peter de Boer, a THNK faculty member, states in his post, How to Reframe Your Thinking to Delight Users, that “A lot of people think that disruptive innovation means throwing everything away and starting over on a blank slate. But that is not true – that is the realm of artists. Innovation becomes easier when you split tradition from its conventions.” And this is what is at the heart of Reframing — examining and reassessing entrenched beliefs to discover new possibilities.

Reframing: An Easy 4-Step Process

So, how do you get started on a Reframing exercise? It begins with selecting a topic you want to examine. It can be esoteric (e.g., technological disruption in your industry) or quotidian (e.g., how to collapse silos across business functions).

Structuring Teams & Setup

You can run a Reframing session solo or with a large group. If you have more than a handful of people participating, split the team into groups of 3 based on the subject they want to reframe or as cross-disciplinary teams. The teams can each work on different topics or the same one and compare notes.

Each group should be assigned a whiteboard (or space with a sticky easel pad), and two different colored Sharpies (or Post-it notes in two different colors with black Sharpies). My personal preference is to place the initial belief and its supporting notions in red (to mentally connote “stop”) and the reframed notions and belief in green (to suggest “start”).

Step 1: Determine a Core Belief (~10-15 minutes)

Each team should identify the most prevalent, long-held belief related to the topic on which they’re working. Only pick one limiting core belief.

Step 2: Define Supporting Notions (~15-20 minutes)

Each team should identify four supporting notions by asking:

  • Why do we believe this core belief?
  • What makes this core belief true?
Step 3: Define Opposite Supporting Notions (~15-20 minutes)

Next, each team should turn the four notions on their heads:

  • Start with the literal opposite of each notion.
  • Make each notion extreme.
  • Select the most interesting one. It does NOT have to be true, logical or even possible. If the team members are laughing, you’re on the right track.
  • Select one opposite per each supporting notion.
Step 4: Construct a Reframed Core Belief & Solution Space (~15-20 minutes)

Define a reframed version of your core belief. This should not be a direct opposite of the original core belief. Do this by asking:

  • Considering these four new notions, what would be our new core belief?
  • If this was the world in which we lived, what would be our core belief?

Finally, with this reframed core belief in mind, define a solution space — the concept that might activate this core belief to bring it to life.

Reframing In Action

Sam Vos is the Director of U-Turn, a South African non-profit that helps homeless people rebuild their lives. I met him several years ago when he was a participant at a Reframe session Sarah Dickinson and I ran on behalf of THNK for Salesforce’s non-profit clients. In a recent conversation, Sam extolled the virtues of this method saying, “Since I was introduced to the Reframing technique some years ago, I have used it on multiple occasions when our organization encounters stubborn, recurring problems that appear to have no solutions. Somehow, the methodology helps us break free from the constraints of our thinking and helps us to identify new ways to approach a dilemma. These have helped us achieve breakthroughs on a number of issues that have, in turn, transformed our organization.”

Sam was kind enough to permit me to share with you a powerful Reframing exercise his team recently conducted. U-Turn had run out of physical space in which to run their program. The team felt this was an insurmountable predicament, especially when they broke it down into the underlying contributing factors. Sam said, “I felt a real moment of panic thinking that this was a reality we couldn’t change that would severely limit our ability to grow our organization and, ultimately, help the homeless. But then we ran a Reframing session. Not only did we have so much fun dreaming of the wildly opposite possibilities (property barons no less!), but it allowed us to synthesize these notions into a coherent alternative reality, which we took to market in the subsequent months. Armed with the fresh perspective, we saw the idea come to fruition as multiple landlords in our community offered us their space for free because we demonstrated a mutually beneficial outcome — the landlord transforms a hard-to-rent space into a vibrant community hub thus bringing in new business to their other adjacent locations, and we are able to grow our program.”

Here’s U-Turn’s Reframing exercise in a step-by-step view:

Core Belief 

We have a space problem.

Supporting Notions

  1. We are growing our program faster than we can get affordable space.
  2. Space is dedicated for a particular use and ownership.
  3. We don’t have capital to buy and develop space.
  4. Our space needs change a lot.

Flipped Notions

  1. Our space is growing much faster than our program.
  2. Everyone wants us in their space to serve a higher cause. Space is flexible, portable and mobile. Everyone is accommodating and happy to relocate.
  3. We have enough money to be property barons and fleet owners which generates more cash. Space is free.
  4. Our space needs are stable. Space is more flexible than our needs. Our needs don’t change fast enough.

Reframed Belief

The community donates space freely to allow us to serve a mutually beneficial purpose.

Here’s a photo of the completed whiteboard as an illustrative example:


The Many Applications of Reframing

In Disrupting Beliefs: A New Approach to Business Model Innovation published by McKinsey, Marc de Jong and Menno Van Dijk extol the reframing of beliefs as a key tool to business model innovation. Their approach is to examine the principal business model in an industry, identify it’s core beliefs about how to create economic value, along with the supporting notions, and then turn them on their heads, ultimately translating that reframed belief into a new industry business model.

They suggest that increasing digitization allows organizations to examine four core elements of their business models:

  • Customer experience: evolving from loyalty to empowerment
  • Operations: refining activities from efficient to intelligent
  • Resources: shifting from ownership of assets to exclusive access
  • Cost: moving low-cost services to no cost digital goods

There are many other facets of your business model that you can also explore:

  • Customer segments and relationships
  • Value propositions
  • Channels
  • Resources
  • Activities
  • Partners
  • Cost structures
  • Technology
  • Revenue Streams

Getting Started on Your First Reframing

If you’re intrigued and believe Reframing might be just what you need, THNK offers a free, handy online Reframing tool. If you’d like more guidance, THNK’s instructors offer a complimentary Reframing: Creativity for Innovation course on Udemy. The 22-minute, on-demand video will help you “overturn conventional wisdom and gain a novel perspective to disarm skeptics and push the boundaries of innovation by completely flipping an idea to create new possibilities.”

Ignite Your Innovative Thinking

In and of itself, Reframing is an amazing tool to stimulate original thought, yet it also has the ability to instill confidence and an innovative spirit in individuals. As Sam from U-Turn so eloquently put it, “We all know the joy of having team members with an indefatigable Can-Do attitude. No problem is ever too big for them, and somehow they just find solutions where others get stuck. Well, over the last four years of using the Reframing technique, I have found that this system turns our entire staff into a Can-Do team!”

So, if you’re trying to foster an inquisitive mindset and explore new ways of doing business, Reframing is an ideal methodology. It will untether you from convention, and may even affect a disruptive shift!

Amber Bezahler

B-school Meets D-School

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