Framing Questions: The Starting Point for Learning and Adaptation

Some years ago, we introduced the concept of Strategic Doing as a disciplined approach to collaboration and strategic thinking in complex environments. One key aspect of Strategic Doing is the skill of framing questions.

Here, we have borrowed insights from David Cooperrider‘s work in Appreciative Inquiry. I met David when I was on the economics faculty of the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. The critical insight I took from David’s Appreciative Inquiry course is simple and powerful. People will move in the direction of their conversations.

If we frame our conversations toward new opportunities, people will naturally begin to explore these opportunities. Asking big questions, getting curious, and staying open to possibilities are significant in framing our strategic thinking and stimulating innovation in complex environments.

In Strategic Doing, framing questions are the foundation for effective collaboration and strategy development. Good framing questions uncover new insights, challenge our assumptions, and uncover innovative solutions through collaboration.

Today’s blog post explores framing questions and how they provide the starting point for learning and adaptation. Framing questions play a vital role in shaping a strategy in complex, dynamic environments, and they are one of the first skills you learn in Strategic Doing.


Framing refers to defining a situation with meaningful language and perspective. By framing our situation, we intentionally shape what we see. When we face a complex situation we have never encountered before, framing helps reduce our anxiety, explore our opportunities, and determine a promising way forward.

Successful framing helps us make sense of a situation where we don’t know what to do. It reduces our sense of uncertainty and provides us with the courage to act. It creates coherence and direction, helping us navigate the complexities of deciding what to do.

Successful framing focuses our attention on critical issues, identifies potential partners, and aligns our efforts toward a shared outcome (Nitoiu, 2016). This sense of coherence emerges from logic, clarity, and a more profound sense of interconnection.


Framing questions work by shaping our thoughts and guiding our conversations. Framing questions allow us to delve deeper into understanding the complexity of a situation and guide our thinking toward innovative solutions. Designing good framing questions is crucial for strategic thinking and innovation in dynamic environments.

Framing questions are tied to the concept of prospection. Prospection refers to the ability to imagine and anticipate possible futures. By framing questions, we can unlock different perspectives and possibilities, enabling us to envision a range of potential outcomes and consider how to navigate them (Bach & Blake, 2016). The process of collective prospection — exploring what we would like to see, feel, and do in the future — involves designing a shared future that emotionally engages us.

Good framing questions trigger conversations that catalyze strategic thinking and innovation. They prompt us to challenge our assumptions, explore future scenarios, and define new opportunities. Strategic framing allows groups to articulate their thoughts of future possibilities and communicate them effectively with meaningful language.


Designing framing questions starts by defining your conversation’s purpose. Good framing questions should be carefully designed to invite different perspectives. They should also be open-ended to encourage diverse and creative thinking. They can’t be so broad that they are impractical. They also should not be too narrow, biased, or point to a pre-determined outcome. Good framing questions rely on unbiased but clear, concise, and vivid language. They avoid jargon and hackneyed or fraught terms. They stimulate a range of responses and viewpoints to emerge.

So, how do we effectively frame questions? There are several key considerations to frame questions effectively. These considerations include the following:

  1. Understanding the context: Before framing a question, it is essential to understand the context in which it will be asked clearly. This includes considering the specific situation, the target outcome of the conversation, and any relevant background information or constraints. I think of the situation this way. In any new situation, I want to understand the strategic conversations that have been taking place. (A strategic conversation is focused on the two critical questions of strategy: Where are we going? How will we get there?) I want to use a framing question to move the existing conversation to a new level of performance. (As a consultant, I would often tell my clients that if they want a different level of performance, they need to change their conversations.)
  2. Embedding the first version of a potential outcome: The framing question should be aligned with the purpose of your conversation. Where do you want to go? At the end of your conversation, what do you want people to think, feel, or do? Framing questions embed hypotheses about the future. They point us to opportunities worth exploring. In designing a framing question, I “start with the end in mind”. I want my framing question to nudge our thinking toward a future that is both inspiring and practical. What is that future I see in my mind’s eye?
  3. Considering multiple perspectives: Framing questions should allow for exploring different viewpoints and perspectives. Are you using a language that is both vivid and balanced? Have you avoided jargon, biased terms, and fraught or hackneyed expressions? Are you encouraging diverse thinking and practical inquiry? You can uncover these pitfalls by testing your framing question to see how well it attracts diverse points of view.
  4. Encouraging open-ended thinking: Framing questions should be open-ended rather than closed-ended. Powerful open-ended questions start with terms like “Imagine if…” or “How could we…” Open-ended questions invite participants to offer more detailed and thoughtful answers. The conversation goes deeper toward more nuanced and sophisticated potential solutions. Open-ended questions encourage participants to think critically and independently. They consider multiple perspectives and generate more innovative solutions.
  5. Using vivid language. Vivid language makes a framing question more engaging and memorable. It evokes emotions and elicits more personal responses. With more engaging language, framing questions can effectively guide conversations and encourage diverse and creative thinking (Vernon et al., 2016). Vivid language triggers a process of collective prospection: designing a future together. You can think of framing questions as a magnet, an attractor, or a watering hole. We want to engage people emotionally, and, to do that, we must avoid the trite, the hackneyed, and the bland. Writing a framing question is not too dissimilar to the challenge a novelist encounters in the first paragraph. How does she “hook” the reader
  6. Promoting active listening and personal reflection: Framing questions should encourage active listening and respectful conversation among participants. (We embed this discipline in the first rule of Strategic Doing.) Good framing questions spark our curiosity. They invite us on a journey in which we are curious to listen to each other’s perspectives, ask clarifying questions, and explore what we could do together. Framing questions should also encourage participants to engage in reflective thinking, an essential professional skill in complex situations. When we face highly uncertain situations, we use reflection to generate practical insights and knowledge. reflective thinking encourages participants to consider their assumptions, biases, and frames of reference. A good framing question guides the conversation to a deeper understanding of the challenge we face.
  7. Recognizing the value of diverse perspectives: Everyone views the world through a straw. Or, as a college friend once said to me, “Everyone is watching their own movie.” True enough. Framing questions should encourage us to embrace multiple viewpoints and perspectives to expand our thinking. Broadening our perspectives gives us a more comprehensive understanding of our situation and can lead to more innovative solutions. By framing questions that invite diverse perspectives, we can tap into our collective intelligence and unlock innovative ideas we can easily miss.

These framing questions guidelines encourage curiosity and inquiry. They invite diverse responses and encourage both critical thinking and reflection. They promote active listening and more profound, respectful conversations. They recognize the value of multiple, diverse perspectives when we confront complex situations and we don’t know what to do. But in the end, drafting good framing questions is more art than science. It’s a skill, and mastery only comes with practice.