Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship
London Business School

“Framing contests”: What really happens in strategy-making meetings

One of the first series of strategy-making meetings I ever attended was in a large newspaper company. I was basically a fly on the wall, watching the process unfold with the mixture of curiosity, puzzlement and amazement, like a Martian watching a cricket game (or so I imagine).

It quickly struck me that there seemed to be a number of pre-formed sub-groups, with their own opinion and agenda. You had the people who wanted to take the company public, those who thought they should diversify into other areas of business, those who thought they should become a “green company”, and so on, and those who thought they shouldn’t care out of a matter of principle.

Of course there were some political motives at play but mostly these people seemed genuinely convinced that their opinion was what was best for the future of the company. And, rather than coming up with new ideas, the strategy meetings seemed to consist of the various people trying to convince each other of their view of the company, its future and the changes required.

Many years later, I read the PhD dissertation work of Sarah Kaplan, a former McKinsey consultant turned Professor at the Wharton Business School. Sarah described such strategy-meetings as “framing contests”. Framing contests, she said, concern “the way actors attempt to transform their personal cognitive frames into predominant collective frames through a series of interactions in the organization”. And although I had to read that sentence a couple of times (before I endeavoured to even begin to believe that I had any clue what the heck she was talking about) it gradually struck me as quite accurate.

In strategy meetings, people try to convince each other by painting a mental image of the future; what would happen if they’d continue as is, and what could happen if they’d follow the course of action proposed by them. They might throw in some numbers based on “research” (put together long after they had made up their mind), and engage in spirited debate, complete with raised voices, rolling eyes and the occasional hand gesture.

And you would win the contest if, through a series of debates, you managed to convince others and get your view of the company and its future adopted as the dominant frame, defining how the organisation sees itself and what it is trying to achieve in the market.

And this may not be a bad way of doing things. I saw the same process unfold – quite successfully – in model train maker Hornby, where the debate centred on divesting, diversifying, investing more or outsourcing production to China (the latter faction won). Similarly, it famously led Intel, over the course of several years, to abandon its memory business in favour of microprocessors.

Former Intel chief executive Andy Grove said about this: “The faction representing the x86 microprocessor business won the debate even though the 386 had not yet become the big revenue generator that it eventually would become”.

Stanford professor Robert Burgelman (who spent a life-time studying Intel), wrote about this same episode: “Some managers sensed that the existing organizational strategy was no longer adequate and that there were competing views about what the new organizational strategy should be. Top management as a group, it seems, was watching how the organization sorted out the conflicting views.”

Later, Andy Grove concurred that that is what happened, and quite deliberately so: “You dance around it a bit, until a wider and wider group in the company becomes clear about it. That’s why continued argument is important. Intel is a very open system. No one is ever told to shut up, but you are asked to come up with better arguments”.

So next time you find yourself debating your company’s strategy and future, realise you’re in a framing contest. Your powers of persuasion will only be as good as your mental imagery.

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4 Comments for ““Framing contests”: What really happens in strategy-making meetings”

  • Dan Erwin says:

    Framing seems to be an appropriate way of describing what happens in strategy sessions. However, after reading your blog a couple times, it strikes me that what you describe is pretty clean–and that the winner takes all. Those of us in the social sciences know that that is rarely, if ever, true. Concepts, no matter how individually thought through are always adjusted, tweaked, refined, tuned, shaped or reframed in a productive meeting. In other words, we never leave a meeting with our concept completely untouched–and if it were to happen, I believe that the team failed and someone must have been asleep at the stick.

    Tags: frame, reframe, strategy planning

  • David says:

    I think that there are three stages here.

    First, it’s important to air the different competing views, with discourse or disagreement being much more valuable than consensus.

    Second, these ideas should be built upon by the team in a positive, collaborative way, to see what they could turn into.

    Third, it should be the chairman / MD / strategy leader who goes away and makes the decision, essentially as an enlightened dictator.

  • Ken Fox says:

    I have led strategy sessions for an SBU that builds on using creative thinking techniques. I found them more productive as the composition of the group was more diversified to include cross functional representatives that may not be given the opportunity to contribute to a strategy. Other than C level executives, middle and other management need to be reminded of what strategy means, and that is different from a tactical or stricly sales approach.
    Ken Fox

  • Anonymous says:

    As pointed out, strategy is future looking for the most part; that future could be next month, next year, or the next product or service. Also as pointed out, it should be dynamic. However, all too often, especially in larger companies, it is more a process than an effort to be creative.
    The sessions are time for team building; for creative juices to flow; for the ideas to mingle, merge, move toward a path that is created from consensus and not conflict.
    It should be done in a very non threatening environment and everyone involved should be comfortable with the fact that it can and will change over time as events unfold.
    Most of all it should be fun!

    Bob Duerr
    VP Sales and Marketing
    OneVoice Technologies

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