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Planning for Everything: The Design of Paths and Goals

March 5, 2018

This is a sample chapter from Peter Morville’s new book Planning for Everything: The Design of Paths and Goals. 2018 Semantic Studios.

Chapter 2: Framing

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”—T.S. Eliot

Cover: Planning for EverythingAt 14,259 feet, Longs Peak is the highest summit in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. In summer, day hikers can reach the top without climbing gear. The 15 mile trek takes 10 to 15 hours. The views are breathtaking. In 2016, lured by its siren song, I arrived at the trailhead of the Keyhole route with backpack and headlamp at 4 a.m. The night sky was beautiful. A few hours later, I made it over a boulder field to the keyhole which serves as a gateway to narrow ledges and steep inclines. The wind was fierce. I began to have doubts, resolved to forge ahead, but on the threshold, I froze in fear. After a moment of abject terror, I crept to safety and began my untimely descent.

It didn’t take long to conclude I was happy with the outcome. I’m a hiker not a climber. The decision to try was made lightly. It’s my habit to value grit, but in planning this book and this trip, I’d chosen to experiment with commitment. So why risk my life for an unforced goal? Also, the summit was actually a subgoal. Each year I choose a quest, be it a mountain or a marathon, that inspires me to exercise and eat well. I’d already put in the work. As I wandered my way down, I felt happy and carefree. But later that day as I told my wife, she surprised me by asking “so when will you try again?” She didn’t get it. I had nothing to prove. I was happy to let it go. Or so I thought.

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Figure 2-1—Framing is how we understand and explain our plans.
Framing is how we understand and explain our plans.

It’s easy to say the first step in planning is to define your goals, but it’s also simplistic. In deciding to climb a mountain, there’s more than meets the eye. What’s the trigger that makes us take aim? What beliefs or feelings can get us to pivot? What’s the vision or value that helps us endure? Framing is the practice through which we understand and explain the why, what, and how. It starts as we begin to plan but may not stop when we’re done. I’m reframing my Longs Peak odyssey now, as I write.

To do this work, we employ metaphors and mental models as shortcuts. A ferocious battle to the summit activates the frame of war, whereas talk of solitude in the wild invokes the insight and wisdom of a spiritual quest. Frames are heuristics or rules of thumb we use to make sense of information. A category is a frame, and so is a stereotype. We’re mostly not aware of these maps even as we make plans built on their keys and contours.

Understanding the Problem

Nobody relies on improvisation more than the Marine Corps, which explains why the Marines respect planning. They must be prepared to rapidly deploy a combined arms task force to deal with a crisis anywhere in the world; and units in the field must execute the mission while adapting the plan as needed.

The Marine Corps Planning Process includes six steps: problem framing, course of action development, wargaming, course of action comparison and decision, orders development, and transition to execution; and it defines the first step as pivotal.

Problem framing enhances understanding of the environment and the nature of the problem. It identifies what the command must accomplish, when and where it must be done and, most importantly, why—the purpose. Since no amount of subsequent planning can solve a problem insufficiently understood, problem framing is the most important step in planning. [1]

I agree with the Marines in spirit, but I have a problem with their framing. A focus on “understanding the problem” can become part of the problem. In our model, framing includes understanding and explaining both the problem and solution.

If you see this argument as semantic, you’re right. Words are levers. A small change can have a big impact. In framing, it’s helpful to recognize that how, and whether, we see a problem is invisibly shaped by our awareness of potential solutions.

As an information architect, framing is a vital part of my work, but it’s not what organizations ask me to do. For example, the National Cancer Institute hired me to fix the usability of their Web site by reorganizing its navigation. The goal was to reduce the number of clicks from the home page to content. But I soon discovered a bigger problem. Most folks searching for answers about specific types of cancer never reached cancer.gov due to poor findability via Google. I only saw this problem because I knew how to solve it. I explained to my client that by aligning the information architecture with search engine optimization, we could improve usability and findability. Together, we were able to reframe the goals. The site went on to win awards and rise to the top of the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

We all chuckle at the old adage “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” but we each fail to realize how our own idiosyncratic toolbox shapes what we see. To address this blind spot, we must be explicit about the messy, nonlinear paths binding understand the problem to explain the solution.

Figure 2-2—Framing is messy and nonlinear.
Framing is messy and nonlinear.

Also, we may see anew with a semantic twist. I didn’t climb Longs Peak to solve a problem. I did it for fun. What if we aim framing at realizing an opportunity that lives in the fertile space between what is and what might be? This frame opens a door to innovation and the solving of problems that don’t exist.

A word for our problem is fixity. We’re fixed on our maps and fail to see the territory. This is why 911 calls from people lost in corn mazes is a thing. It doesn’t occur to them to push aside the stalks, since they think they’re in a maze, not a cornfield.

The nine dot puzzle shows how mental models can be traps.

Given a sheet of paper with nine dots in a square matrix, each equidistant from its neighbors, join all the dots with no more than four continuous straight lines. Don’t lift the pencil from the paper.

If you’ve never wrangled with this problem, try it now. It can seem impossible until you’ve seen the solution. Less than ten percent of people are able to solve the nine dot problem within ten minutes, despite the fact it can be solved by using one, two, three, or four continuous straight lines or paths. I won’t reveal the answers here, they’re easily findable online, but the trick lies in freeing ourselves from self-imposed constraints.

Figure 2-3—The nine dot problem
The nine dot problem

To evade fixity, it helps to embrace multimethod research. On consulting projects, I mix stakeholder meetings, user research and ethnography, surveys, analytics, and participatory design. I listen as my clients define scope and explain the problem, but nurture my inner contrarian and work to keep an open mind.

It’s overwhelming to absorb myriad sources of qualitative and quantitative data, but it enables me to wonder outside the box. What’s the problem? What’s the root cause? And what is it we hope to improve? Is it software, a Web site, a system, a service, a place, or an experience? Each frame opens a new window of opportunity. Discovery plus reflection leads to better goals.

I wasn’t always so mindful. As an entrepreneur in the 1990s, I had a growth mindset. I defined “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” and worked hard to achieve them. [2] Most years, our consulting firm more than doubled in income and staff, and it felt good. To create jobs, help clients, make the Web better for users, and profit all at the same time was great for my ego. It was easy to be addicted to growth and to see get bigger faster as the goal. I don’t have many regrets from those days, but I am grateful for the downturn that forced us to close. I’m happier and healthier now, because I realized the opportunity to slow down then.

Our culture is defined by growth. We rate countries by gross domestic product and companies by market capitalization. We label people by grade, title, and income. We define goals and measure progress to achieve success. We’re inspired by Walt Disney who said “a person should set his goals as early as he can and devote all his energy to getting there” [3] and “all our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.” [4] In Disney’s relentless quest to “make people happy,” he built a global empire that’s worth more than $150 billion.

In our pursuit of happiness, we heed the timeless words of management guru Peter Drucker who told us “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” We define key performance indicators (KPIs) and objectives and key results (OKRs) for business. And we use wearable sensors to track steps, calories, insulin levels, and the heart rates of individuals. The numbers keep us so busy, we fail to realize Drucker would never have said those words. The quote is also attributed to W. Edwards Deming, but what he really said is “it is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it—a costly myth.” [5]

Do you ever wonder why misquotations are so common? Is it sloth or greed? I suspect all seven deadly sins. To make a case for a goal, we’re seduced by the fit of words and symbols. I’d love to tell you “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts” is the wise counsel of Albert Einstein, but it’s not. The prevalence of misquotations affords a glimpse into the harmful side effects of goal setting. As the authors of Goals Gone Wild argue, the damages are far more serious and systematic than we realize.

The beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and the systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored. Side effects include a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation. [6]

You know who had goals? Enron. Of course, I don’t mean to say goals and metrics are bad. They are vital to inspiration and motivation. But they are dangerous. It’s all too easy to fix on a target and miss the point. That’s why we must reflect on our needs, wants, feelings, values, and beliefs, as well as our goals.

The problem is reflection is harder than it sounds. I felt this in planning to climb Longs Peak the second time. Months after my initial attempt, the mountain was on my mind, when I got a surprise invitation to speak in Boulder in early September. It felt like fate. I decided to try again. But this time I would plan my way to the top. I bought a helmet and gloves, devised an intense physical training program, and started my research.

I didn’t get far. This mountain is scary. Before my first try, I ignored trip reports to evade anxiety. Now I made myself dig in, so I’d know what to expect. Past the keyhole are narrow ledges with 2,000 foot drops, steep inclines with loose rock, and a slick granite slab that requires near vertical scrambling. The weather is unpredictable, so you can’t ever count out ice or lightning. The wind is insane with gusts up to 200 mph. If conditions change unexpectedly, climbers may make mortal decisions influenced by fatigue and altitude sickness. Deaths, injuries, and helicopter rescues are a regular occurrence. Of course, most folks survive intact, with only two deaths for every 10,000 summits, but I found little solace in this statistic.

I chose to focus on training and not think about the climb, but soon ran into a problem. My foot hurt, a lot. At first I thought it was metatarsalgia, but the way it would come and go made no sense. I realized it was pain rooted in repressed emotion, a mind-body connection I’d endured before. [7] This was about the mountain. The emotion at the root of the problem was fear.

I thought about quitting but read The Art of Fear instead. The author, Kristen Ulmer, rose to fame as an extreme skier, then reinvented herself as a mindset coach to help rid folks of pain, anxiety, anger, and depression caused by avoidance of fear. Noting even a single-cell amoeba, exposed to fire, moves away to save itself, she explains fear is a signal from the oldest, most deeply buried part of our brain, and that whether we call it an amygdala or a lizard brain, we must listen when it talks, since repressed fear is a key source of injury, illness, addiction, and rage. Of course, System 1 doesn’t use words, so we often don’t know what it means. Even so, as Kristen notes, we respond in powerful ways, such as the translation of fear into fierceness.

Ask pro athletes—preferably after their careers are over and they have no more illusions about themselves or their hype—what made them great. They’ll eventually admit that it was the perfect storm of many things, but mostly the right childhood demons and fears. Perhaps a need to prove something to someone. Or fear of, as with me, not being special, of being invisible, of not being loved, or of failure and rejection. This is what makes for a great athlete. [8]

We can’t conquer fear, but we can use it. Even better, we can render the emotion into a source of joy and wisdom. To begin, we must become curious about the roles of fear in our lives.

Fear is the motive. That’s what I realized in my goal to reach the summit. Fear of disease and death moves me to exercise. The thrill of fear inspires me to climb. I don’t need to scale the mountain. But I want to. Risk is a way to feel alive. Fear is also a barrier, quite often invisible. Most goals are never more than a fleeting glimpse. We undo them with the first twinge of fear. If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have erased the idea of Longs Peak before it became a goal. But the journey altered my framing of the destination. To study and relish my fear of heights became an explicit co-goal. My curiosity was piqued. My foot no longer hurt. I began to run towards the fear.

Explaining the Solution

A plan is a frame. If asked to make a plan, you may see steps on a path to a goal, but that’s not the only way. A plan can be a process. Innovation sends us off the map in search of fuzzy goals. Before we define a solution, it’s worth exploring which elements might be fixed or flexible. In a waterfall model, the scope is fixed while time and cost are flexible. We define the goal precisely, then struggle to stay on schedule and budget. In agile frameworks, time and cost are fixed while scope is flexible. Goals may change based on progress and feedback.

Figure 2-4—The iron triangle of planning
The iron triangle of planning

The iron triangle tells us “good, fast, cheap: pick two,” but like all maps, it hides more than it reveals. A better way may exist, if we think outside the triangle. A new tool or technology can do the trick, or we might invest in infrastructure. This needn’t be complex. A simple kitchen reorg can lead to faster, cheaper, better meals. The solution exists in the flexibility of our minds.

As we shift from understanding the problem to explaining the solution, we should mind our frames. The way we perceive an opportunity may not be the best way to sell it, but here lie dragons. Aristotle defined rhetoric as “observing in any given case the available means of persuasion,” [9] and as George Lakoff warns, framing is among the most powerful of those means.

Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome. [1]

Frames are evoked by words, and as a colleague of mine likes to say “words make people hallucinate.” [11] In a debate, Lakoff  argues their language draws you into their world view, so do not use their words, like Richard Nixon did when he claimed “I am not a crook.” [12] Of course, framing isn’t the only path to persuasion. In Influence, Robert Cialdini shares a panoply of tricks. For instance, in the case of a person who wants to skip to the front of a line, the subtle shift from “May I use the Xerox machine?” to “May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make some copies?” boosts compliance from 60 to 93 percent. People respond to an explicitly stated reason, even if it adds no information. The word “because” exploits a cognitive bias to elicit automatic compliance. [13] Similarly, price is a trigger for quality. Salespeople take advantage of the mental shortcut or stereotype that “expensive equals good” all the time. Age, sex, race, and religion are also triggers. As I said, here lie dragons.

Cialdini’s cons are intriguing but easily blur from persuasion into manipulation. Our frames must be guided by our values. Of course, it’s possible to frameshift ethically. For instance, if you’re motivated to start a company by fears of climate change and ecosystem collapse, and hope to attract investors across the political spectrum, it may make sense to frame the solution in terms of clean or local energy. It’s not wrong to reframe an argument in a way that resonates with your audience, but it is unethical to trick people into acting against their own interests or acting on misinformation. Frames exist on a slippery slope.

That’s why we must take time to wallow in the problem space and in the solution space before fixing on a frame. In the back and forth between what is and what might be, we may realize the kind of opportunity where the solution sells itself. In 1997, the folks who built and sold computers were fixed on features and performance, yet upon returning to save Apple, Steve Jobs argued “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.” [14] This reframing of the experience as the product opened a path to the reinvention of computers. The insight arose in a mind willing to wallow in the uncomfortable spaces that bridge problem and solution.

Principles to Practices

Before we turn the page from framing to imagining, let’s recall our mnemonic by asking a question: how might we make the practice of framing more social, tangible, agile, and reflective?

We can make framing social by creatively engaging people in the definition of goals and vision. We might employ the usual methods in unusual ways or try uncommon methods. Before building the Eishin school and campus in Japan, the architect Christopher Alexander inspired teachers and students to share their needs, wants, and desires with this gentle invitation.

Please close your eyes. Just keep your eyes closed and dream. Imagine a place, the most wonderful school you can imagine, a kind of fairytale school where everyone is happy. [15]

Reluctantly, hesitatingly, they would begin to describe their hopes and feelings in word-pictures the architect later used to create a pattern language for the community. Visions include “the library has a large, quiet reading room on the second floor, with shelves and tables and carrels and beautiful windows,” and “there is also one garden, so secret, that it does not appear on any map.” It’s a lovely and unusual illustration of participatory design, and it worked. I visited the school a quarter century after it was built. The whole campus is full of life and beauty. No place has ever made me feel more happy.

Do you have a fleeting glimpse that may become a goal? How can you make framing more social? There are more ways than stars in the universe. Most require that we also make framing more tangible. For instance, Jeff Bezos has created a culture at Amazon in which “working backwards” is an assumption. For any new initiative, employees begin by writing a press release and FAQ that explain the finished product to the customer. [16] No product is built without conversations and iterations around these tangible artifacts of a customer-centered frame.

Of course, we can also make “working forwards” social and tangible as well. Designers use all sorts of methods to make the invisible visible, so we can talk about needs and wants. A mood board is a collage of images, text, and color that invites us to chat about feel, flow, and style. A mental model diagram shows how people think, feel, and act by organizing tasks into boxes into towers. A set of core desired feelings exposes flaws in material goals. And a mind map can uncover relationships between co-goals, values, and beliefs, so we can get feedback.

One way to be agile from the start is to stop building products and focus on “jobs to be done.” [17] Why does a customer hire a kettle? Is it to boil water? Or to brew a beverage? Keurig gets the whole job done on a single platform. Outcome-driven innovation starts with framing for agility. We might also step back to frame the goal in terms of intent, as why expands how. If the goal is to get in shape, do you need to run a marathon?

The last point of our star is reflective, and it’s what framing is all about. Our choice of words and metaphors says as much about us as the goal. Is it a game or a conversation or a battle, and why do we frame it that way? My friend is a life coach, and she says eighty percent of her clients are not ready to plan, because they don’t trust or listen to themselves. How can you know what you want if you don’t even know who you are?

We’re not always free to choose our goals. In school, it’s hard to escape grades. At work, metrics roll top down. It’s safest to go with the flow and accept the goals defined by the system. Even so it pays to reflect. If we study the maps that make the system, it’s easier to win the game. And if we identify co-goals or frame the goals we’re given as part of our mission, we can inspire ourselves. And we may be more free than we think. Much of what we do is due to want not need. Food, water, clothing, shelter, and fellowship are essential, yet we mostly sacrifice to gain status and to stave off the emotion of fear.

My second ascent of Longs Peak began as the first, under a clear night sky with infinite stars. The goal was also clear: to explore my fears on the ledges and slopes beyond the keyhole. I had a great plan, an early start, and hiked up the forest path in high spirits, but as the sun and I rose above the tree line, the wind began to roar. There were others on the mountain, and some turned back. Resolute, I carried on. The wind got worse. The gusts were like nothing I’d ever felt. I had to kneel to not be blown over and shut my eyes to stop the dust. Reluctantly, I realized I’d never make it past the keyhole. So I turned back, again. On the way down, I heard one climber reached the top, most quit, and one was blown over, a face of grit and blood.

I’m not sure I was made to climb mountains, or at least not mountains so tall. It’s not the hard work. I love that. But my tolerance for risk is low. On the other hand, I’m glad I made the summit my goal. I learned to be curious about fear. To plan backwards makes sense. A clear goal helps us endure.

But grit can blind us to insight. Pema Chödrön says “fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” [18] I agree. Now, in framing my goals, I’m more likely to go towards the fear. 

Notes

[1] Marine Corps Planning Process, MCWP 5-1 (2010).

[2] Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras (1994).

[3] Walt Disney: Magician of the Movies, by Bob Thomas (1966).

[4] How to Be Like Walt: Capturing the Disney Magic, by Pat Williams (2004).

[5] The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, by W. Edwards Deming (2000).

[6] Goals Gone Wild, by Lisa D. Ordóñez et. al. (2009).

[7] Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become, by Peter Morville (2005).

[8] The Art of Fear, by Kristen Ulmer (2017).

[9] Rhetoric, by Aristotle (350 BCE).

[10 Don’t Think of an Elephant, by George Lakoff (2004).

[11] Words of Kat King (published with permission).

[12] Words of Richard Nixon during a press conference (1973).

[13] Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini (1984).

[14] Speech by Steve Jobs at the World Wide Developers Conference (1997).

[15] The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth, by Christopher Alexander (2012).

[16] The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, by Brad Stone (2014).

[17] Jobs To Be Done: Theory to Practice, by Anthony W. Ulwick (2016).

President, Semantic Studios

Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

Peter MorvillePeter is a pioneer in the fields of information architecture and user experience. He is best known for being an author of the polar bear book on information architecture—Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. Other books by Peter include Ambient Findability, Search Patterns, and Intertwingled. His latest book, Planning for Everything, is about the design of paths and goals. Peter has been helping people to plan since 1994. His clients include AT&T, eBay, Harvard, IBM, the Library of Congress, Microsoft, the National Cancer Institute, and Vodafone.  Read More

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