We Need to Reframe Our Communications

I recently read the book Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. The authors modeled their book on a course they taught at Stanford University that encouraged students to apply design thinking principles to their lives. The book presents a recurring theme of identifying the dysfunctional beliefs that hold us back and offers suggestions for reframing these beliefs into actionable, open-ended alternatives. The concept of reframing intrigued me, both for its applications to life design and for helping me get “unstuck” in my work in church communications. (It’s also not lost on me that ReFrame Ministries is the name of the organization publishing this article.)

Framing and brainstorming

One chapter of the book highlights the value of brainstorming in the design process. In brainstorming, framing and reframing play a critical role. The authors point out that when framing a question, we must be careful not to include the solution in our query. Doing so, they say, leads to a “ladder problem.” Here’s what they mean:

This happens all the time with some of Bill’s clients. They want to brainstorm “ten new ways to make a ladder for a stockroom.” This isn’t a very good framing question, because a ladder is a solution (and they only want ten ideas). A better framing would be to focus on what a ladder does: “How many ways can we think of to…give a person access to inventory in high places?” or “How many ways can we think of to…give a stockperson three-dimensional mobility in a warehouse?” These questions do not assume that ladders are the only way to solve the problem, and they open up the solution space for more creative answers. (pp.121-122)

We need…

So, how does this show up in church communications? If we start a sentence with the words “we need,” we’re probably dealing with a ladder problem, and it’s a good time to reframe. Here are a few real-life examples of ladder problems I’ve seen in my role:

  • We need to upgrade our live stream system

  • We need a welcome kiosk

  • We need to be using Slack

  • We need to redesign our bulletin; we need to stop printing the bulletin; we need to return to printing the bulletin

Do you see how these are all variations of the ladder problem? There is no opportunity to brainstorm; the statements include the solutions. Granted, these might possibly be the best solutions to a given problem. But you need to incorporate design thinking when crafting a communications strategy to ensure you’re allowing yourself the opportunity to make a more informed decision. Designing Your Life encourages readers to embrace this key philosophy: “You choose better when you have lots of good ideas to choose from.” These “we need” statements don’t offer us the benefits of choice. Instead, they function only on assumption.

Starting with the value

Designing Your Life provides a way of reframing these “ladder problems.” In the example of accessing warehouse inventory, the authors recommend considering what a ladder does.

Here’s how I’ve put this into practice: I first identify our values then determine which tools, practices, and efforts would best honor those values. Think about some of the different values your church might hold: participation, inclusion, hospitality, authenticity, to name a few.

With values in mind, here’s how I might reframe the above examples:

  • “We need to upgrade our live stream system” becomes: How do we encourage participation for those who worship online and enfold them into meaningful corporate worship with those in the building? (Value=participation)

  • “We need a welcome kiosk” becomes: What can we do to show hospitality to newcomers and provide clear, welcoming invitations to get acquainted and more involved with the church? (Value = hospitality)

  • “We need to be using Slack” becomes: How do we want to communicate and collaborate as a team, and what tools can help us? (value = collaboration)

  • “We need to redesign our bulletin” becomes: What communication tools can best serve our members? (values=clarity and connection)

But is it practical?

You might think this sort of reframing sounds good in theory, but you’re too busy to put it into practice. After all, things still need to get done. Perhaps you get immense satisfaction from checking off items on your to-do list, and reframing isn’t the clear “action step” you’re looking for. Or, maybe you look at this and think, “This just seems like a slower route to the same spot. It would be quicker to just do the thing you gotta do.”

While it's true that reframing may require a bit more time and thought upfront, it ultimately leads to more effective and aligned solutions for you and your team. It helps us avoid the trap of simply "doing the thing" without considering if it's right. By aligning our actions with our core values and goals, we can navigate the challenges of church communications more effectively and meaningfully.

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