In an earlier posting, I wrote about frames – those familiar ways of thinking that help us make sense of a complicated world – and why it’s important in advancing new ideas to connect them to familiar and comforting frames. But what if the frame itself is the problem? Rather than helping people think about new ideas, what if the frame stops helpful discussions cold?
It happens all the time. But let’s be clear: The problem isn’t that people use frames, it’s that they’re using the wrong ones. That’s because even the most intellectually gifted among us need frames, which work like filters allowing some ideas in and keeping others out, to think about complex situations and focus on good solutions. But if we want to bring helpful ideas to our communities, it’s critical that we use the right frames to think about our problems and our communities. And if we’re using the wrong ones, we need to, well, reframe our thinking. As you’ll see, this is not easy but it is possible.
But, first, what exactly is a frame that might be used in communities? Usually, it’s a mental picture and a set of associations. Less commonly, it’s an analogy. Here are some examples: A community might think of itself as a “great small town,” with a set of associations that flow from that picture. (Not surprisingly, many people in such places think of the old Andy Griffith television show and its images of Mayberry.) A different frame, perhaps for an in-town neighborhood: young and hip, and the associations that flow from that. Less common are frames that are analogies, such as seeing a community as a business, a team, a family or a club.
So, how can good frames go wrong? They go wrong when reality changes and the frames don’t. I’ve worked recently in a suburban county that has seen massive demographic changes in the past 20 years. The ethnic composition has gone from 90 percent white to 50 percent in the last 20 years, its residents are aging rapidly, and the economic base has shifted dramatically as it has become a major center of employment. In short, it is more urban today than suburban. But the frame used by many leaders and citizens is that of 20 years ago: We’re a nice, affordable, low-tax, family-oriented suburb where people move to get away from urban problems, not deal with them.
You can see the problem here. By stopping people from thinking about urban issues – diversity, density, new styles of development, new modes of transportation, poverty and crime – the frame prevents leaders from dealing with the community’s most pressing problems and opportunities.
So, what do you do in this kind of situation? You help people change their frames. You do this in two ways: First, through a concerted effort to show why the old frame doesn’t work. Second, by suggesting a frame that fits the new reality.
Sound impossible? Well, it’s difficult and requires great patience, but this reframing process happens often enough that we know it’s not impossible. Here’s an example: smoking as a public health problem. If you can remember back that far, think about how smokers behaved around non-smokers 30 years ago. They lit up. Smoking was allowed in almost every public place in America, except elevators, buses and airplanes that were parked on the ground.
What drove the smokers out of doors wasn’t something they did, but a change in the frame used by non-smokers. Earlier, non-smokers may have been annoyed when an officemate started puffing away. They may even have complained. But they had no standing to ask smokers to leave; that required a great deal of well-publicized research on the dangers of second-hand smoke, and the reframing of smoking as a menace and not just an annoyance to non-smokers. (Or to put the frame in more positive language, non-smokers discovered they had a right to healthy air.)
That’s what it takes to change the frames used by communities as well. It takes a persistent but respectful campaign against the old frame (“we’re not the sleepy suburb we once were”), together with careful documentation of the changes (the demographic and economic shifts), matched with a new and positive frame (“we’re the suburb of the 21st century, diverse, dynamic and forward-looking”).
Don’t expect this to be a quick change in thinking. People accept new ideas reluctantly; they accept entire new ways of thinking about things even more reluctantly. But it’s critical work for leaders, because if you want better solutions, it’s necessary to think about problems and opportunities in new ways. And often that starts with a new frame. Albert Einstein saw the same thing in science: “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.” Works pretty well in communities, too.