Reframing What is Possible

Seeing Possibilities

Reframing changes our perspective so we are able to see a problem differently. It is one of the most powerful techniques for creative thinking. Through reframing we gain new insights, see new options, and find unexpected solutions. Reframing is key to strategy development. It is also an essential tool in the design repertoire.

“It’s tough to make predictions,” Yogi Berra once said, “especially about the future.” We miss what is possible by staying in the current frame. Anything radically different seems preposterous. This has always been a challenge in making predictions about the future of technology.

  • “Inventions have long since reached their limit, and I see no hope for further developments.” – Julius Sextus Frontinus, Roman engineer (A.D. 10)
  • “The Americans have need of a telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” – Sir William Preese, Chief Engineer, British Post Office (1876)
  • “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” – Charles Duell, U.S. Patent Office (1899)
  • “Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” – Lord Kelvin, British scientist (1899)
  • “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” – Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of IBM (1943)
  • “The world potential market for copying machines is 5,000 at most.” – IBM to the founders of Xerox (1959)
  • “With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market.” – Business Week (1968)
  • “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” – Ken Olsen, chairman and founder, Digital Equipment Corporation (1977)
  • “There’s just not that many videos I want to watch.” – Steve Chen, co-founder, YouTube (2005)

Complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman coined the term ‘adjacent possible’ to describe the universe of new possibilities enabled by what currently exists. This is constantly changing as nature, the economy, and society evolve.

In a Wall Street Journal article, “The Genius of the Tinkerer (2010),” Steven Johnson described this as “a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

“The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible,” Johnson says, “is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point.”

Ways of Reasoning

Reframing is a way to explore this possibility space. Kees Dorst, a professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, wrote on innovation and design in Frame Innovation: Create New Thinking by Design (2015), where he described how reframing can be used in problem-solving.

We can see the world as WHAT (elements), HOW (behaviors), and OUTCOME (the result they create). Dorst describes four ways of reasoning based on these three factors.


Deductive and inductive reasoning help us understand the physical world:

  • Deduction – we know the elements and how they interact, and use this to predict the outcome (describing the movement of planets based on scientific laws)
  • Induction – we know the elements and observed outcomes, and use this to infer how the elements interact (discovering new laws through scientific hypotheses)

Abductive reasoning helps when we want to make things:

  • Normal Abduction – we know the outcome we want and how it will be achieved, and then make something (what) to create the desired behavior
  • Design Abduction – we know the outcome we want but have the freedom to choose both how it will be achieved and what we can make to create the desired behavior

Dorst uses an example to clarify the two types of abduction. “[S]ay that the outcome we want to achieve is an energy rush when coming to work in the morning. In normal abduction we would also already know the ‘how,’ say that this is to be achieved through coffee… so we can start developing a ‘what,’ engineering the machine to make coffee for us. In design abduction, on the other hand we would only know the goal (quick rush of energy before work) but not know how to achieve it.” There may be many ways of producing an energy rush (how) and of making something (what) to create it.

This is the difference between incremental and breakthrough innovation.

Frame Innovation

Dorst defines a frame as the combination of a desired outcome and how the outcome will be achieved. Alternative solutions are defined when different elements are combined with the frame.

“[D]esigners… spend a lot of time reasoning from desired outcomes via frames to possible design solutions,” Dorst says, “and go back again to reframing the problem when they suspect the design solution is inadequate. … [This] may look like a childishly playful hit-and-miss process. Yet in doing so, design practitioners try out and think through many possibilities, building up an intuition about what frames might work in the problematic situation before they pursue one in greater depth.”

He highlights seven core principles.

Attack the context

Work to understand complex problems more deeply and reformulate them before looking for a solution. Examine the context of the problem to gain new insights, and challenge assumptions.

Suspend Judgment

Defer judgment and stay open to ambiguity until the last stage of frame creation, where solution directions and value propositions are tested. Avoid making judgments about what has gone before.

Embrace complexity

Resist the desire to simplify, and accept the complexity of the world as it is. Making simplifying assumptions limits options. Embracing complexity opens the door to creative solutions.

Zoom out, expand, and concentrate

Start with the perspective of the problem owner; then expand the scope to consider other players. Explore how these players have behaved in the past, and what behaviors they might exhibit in the future.

Search for patterns

Search for hidden patterns with fresh eyes. Avoid the temptation to look for evidence that supports particular opinions or theories of how things work.

Deepen themes

Connect with universal themes that bring greater sensibility and more profound meaning to the situation. Explore these themes in greater depth.

Sharpen the frames

Make the frames as clear as possible. Focus attention on a particular subset of the problem, or particular stakeholders, to highlight the required actions.

Breaking Out of the Box

“Companies and government bodies alike are confronted by open, complex, dynamic, and networked problems – but they often do not realize it,” Dorst says. “Such problems initially do not look very different from any other issue that might come up. But when an organization finds itself confronted with an endless parade of similar incidents, alarm bells should be ringing that something more fundamental has shifted and its current frames are not good enough anymore.”

Organizations may be tempted to perpetuate their current frame. This is a risky strategy. Frames are based on assumptions about how things work – assumptions that may be wrong in a rapidly changing world. Defaulting to routine problem solving may ignore new frames that will be used to advantage by competitors. Effective strategists and designers reframe to explore the adjacent possible and find new creative possibilities.

This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on collaboration and transformative change. It was first posted on January 2, 2018, on LinkedIn.

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David Forrest

David is the founder of the Integral Strategy Network. He is a writer, futurist, strategist, and facilitator of systemic change.

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