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Collaboration Pattern #5: Focus & Frame

For any network we convene, we have found a simple but powerful pattern that helps increase ownership and prevent unproductive conflict (as opposed to productive conflict, which we want!). We call it “Focus & Frame.”

Imagine you take a photo of a friend. If you take the picture well (unless you’re being artistically creative), your friend’s face will be in focus. But in addition to your friend’s face, you’ll also see other things in the frame, maybe trees, a playground, or even a seedy bar. What’s in the frame provides useful context around your friend and you understand more fully what was happening around your friend at the time. In fact, if all your photos of your friend lacked the contextual information in frame, those friend photos would be quite dull.

In our approach to goal setting with groups, the Focus is the thing we’re agreeing to, well, focus on and work explicitly to achieve. The Frame is where we place the other goals and concerns that we’re agreeing to also track and pay attention to.

So let’s say that you’re bringing together a collaboration to increase graduation rates in your local community—and graduation rates is the issue that your primary funder and community leaders care most about. But other stakeholders keep insisting that the initiative really needs to prepare kids for college or career, and that a high school diploma might not do either of those.

How do you handle that conflict? Just decide yourself? Hack out a decision in which somebody will lose? Create a multi-faceted, complex goal with multiple metrics underneath it that might be difficult to organize and resource adequately?

One way to handle a challenge like that is to explain the concept of Focus & Frame and suggest something like this:

“So our focus will be on hitting a graduation rate of 98%. We’ll have both career prep and college readiness in our frame as we do that, so we don’t neglect those concerns. And other times, as the graduation rates start to rise, we can decide to move one or both of these other objectives into focus.”

Why is the idea of Focus and Frame useful?

  • It helps us move forward with an agreement that usually works for all,

  • It helps us avoid unintended impacts on related goals that aren’t the group’s current focus,

  • It helps us look for opportunistic solutions that will advance interests in both our Focus and our Frame.

We’ve used the focus and frame concept in nearly all of our collaborations to help people come to the table across diverse interests and concerns. For example, in our work to eliminate worker exposures to hazardous chemicals in electronics facilities, the group is is focused on that primary objective, but the group is also paying attention to discharges of hazardous chemicals into the environment. That helps us avoid creating solutions that lower direct worker exposures but increase environmental discharges, and also to look for those opportunities that will allow us to positively address both concerns.

(And, yes, if you’ve studied Gestalt facilitation, you’ll recognize this as the Figure-Ground concept. And if you haven’t studied Gestalt facilitation and you want to lead people effectively, check out our Advanced Collaborative Leadership course.)

For more details on each of the 8 Patterns in Collaboration, see below.

  1. Critical Shifts

  2. Diverging & Converging

  3. Checking Back

  4. Creative Tensions

  5. Focus & Frame

  6. The Design Squiggle

  7. Working Concurrently

  8. Spiraling


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