Framing the Problem Helps You Focus and Prioritize on What’s Important


On the job, we use the term “frame” or “framing a problem” in the context of project management.

You might hear somebody ask, “what’s the frame?” or “how have you framed the problem?”

The frame is effectively how you put a picture “frame” around the problem to look at it.

When somebody “re-frames” the question or the challenge, they change how you look at it or how you see it.

Frames Help You Look at Problems More Effectively

The heart of is really the dimensions and the scope.  For example, what’s included in the frame and what’s outside of the frame.  How you frame the problem sets the context and helps your prioritize what to focus on.

In this way, frames help you look at problems more effectively.

I use frames a lot here on Sources of Insight to chunk bigger problems down, as well as to organize and share information.

A frame, simply put, is a lens.

What’s a Frame

My favorite definition of framing is from our EE (Engineering Excellence) team at Microsoft:

The unlimited potential of software makes program management an incredibly exciting job.  The unlimited potential of software also makes program management an incredibly important job. 

At every milestone of every product cycle, feature teams face an essentially infinite set of possibilities.  They can build almost anything they dream up.  But to succeed, the team has to make smart choices about where to focus and what to build.  In the face of endless possibility, how do feature teams make these choices?

Framing is the art of identifying what is truly important and separating the “could” from the “should.”  Early in the planning stages of a project, program managers work with customers, planners, and other team members to define this frame and ensure that every member of the team understands and internalizes it.

Why Frame the Space?

According to our EE team, framing is a critical exercise:

The answers to these questions paint a landscape in which a product and its features will be built. The purpose of a frame is to narrow the focus on a clear and compelling vision that fits within this landscape.  This link between vision and landscape is critical.  A vision without this context if fragile and fails to provide teams with the basis for making the myriad of day to day decisions they inevitably face.

Creating Frames

According to our EE team, to create the frame, the program manager starts by asking some broad questions:

  • What are the customers and what are their needs and priorities?
  • What is happening in the marketing place? What are competitors doing and what are our options for responding and differentiating?
  • How is technology changing and what possibilities does it offer our customers?
  • What are the priorities for our business?

Example Frames

Here are some of the example frames I’ve created to help create, find, organize and share information:

If you’re overwhelmed by information overload or trying to learn a new area, consider creating frames to make it easier to deal with.

Photo by Victor Bezrukov.


  1. Hi JD – I love the idea of using frames. And I can understand why it is important to make sure the vision fits with the landscape.

    I’m off to check out the Improvement Frame and Life Frame now and see how I can use them to improve what I’m doing. Thanks.

  2. Finally!
    Taking with me “Creating Frames”, the secret sauce to your guides and my field experience 😉

  3. Excellent topic, J.D.! Frames are very important. I believe I spent most of my life looking through a negative frame and now that I’m working with a positive frame everything is a lot different. Frames come in many different forms, but they are all very important and I’m so glad you brought this topic up so I can think more about the frames in my life. Thanks!

  4. JD
    I used framing techniques for problem-solving with younger children and empowering them to find their own solutions. This is very exciting stuff…Thank you for putting it down in such a good format for understanding.

  5. @ Cath

    Yeah, it’s like zooming in and getting details and then zooming out and getting big picture.

    I think frames really inform the vision and help make it more concrete. I can start out with a fuzzy vision, just a glimpse of the horizon, but as I learn more and frame more, I end up with a much crisper vision that matches the landscape.

    @ Alik

    It definitely is the secret sauce. I used a frame right from my very first book.

    @ Positively Present

    From frame of mind to framing problems … it’s all good. I also like to think of it as what you point your camera at. I tried to find an image that would make the point sticky.

    @ Patricia

    It sounds like the kids were lucky and you gave them the gift of effective thinking.

  6. Hi J.D.,

    I’ve stopped by here several times in the past, but it seemed it was always about business, and therefore not something I was concerned with much, plus I’m not exactly a fan of Microsoft, no offense meant to you. Your comments elsewhere have been so interesting lately that I came back again and discovered it’s not all about business.

    In response to your recent comment about finding the best doctors in the world, I think all you have to do is find out who the rich go to, sadly. The best doctors command the best salaries, though I guess there may be a few who don’t take advantage of that option.

    Regarding your latest comment on Cath’s site, “I used to study past life regression and had some amazing experiences, but finally somebody explained how it works in a non magical, practical way. That said, it’s still weird when somebody you know becomes a completely different person.” Could you share that? I’d love to know, too.

    I’ve read quite a few books on near-death experiences, and some people experience nothing, while others have vivid and sometimes very long experiences. Dannion Brinkley comes to mind — he was gone for a really long time. P.M.H. Atwater, too. I’ll be posting links to those books on my Resources page one of these days soon.

  7. @ Dot

    Thanks for stopping by. The main focus is really on skilled living and effectiveness. Sometimes I share key stuff on business though under the skilled living umbrella.

    Aside from where the rich folks go, I think there are also unsung heroes that people stumble upon.

    I can’t remember the details of the explanation, but I do remember it reminded me of how much we can limit ourselves by what we think of ourselves. When you see a lethargic person become lightening fast, or a slow-witted person become sharp as a tack, all in the blink of an eye, it’s a real eye opener to limits and possibilities.

  8. […] a Frame?: J.D. Meier explains how to use frames to solve problems. And he shares some excellent frames he created, including The Change Frame, and The Life […]

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