Using the Wrong Frame - Poor Decisions from Good Analogies

Framing includes:

  • Establishing the question to be answered
  • Articulating Assumptions
  • Identifying criteria for decision-making
  • Identifying appropriate and sufficient options

Articulating Assumptions

Richard Neustadt and Ernest R. May (1986) suggest that decision making groups should make a standard practice of listing in three separate columns key elements of the immediate situation, namely those Known, Unclear, and Presumed.

They suggest keeping deliberation of "what to do" at bay until the situation surrounding the decision is characterized in this manner.

In corporate settings, we try to leave key assumptions in clear view on a white board or flipchart to remind decision-makers that their deliberations are built on a foundation of beliefs, which may or may not ultimately stand as facts. As the intelligence gathering process continues, the listing of assumptions can be changed with the ease of a white-board erasure, signaling to all that decisions should be tested against the latest set of assumptions.

Assumptions about key decisions are often evident as deliberants reference other decisions made in the past. Indeed, historical analogues can become so embedded in thinking that decision-makers are sometimes unaware the extent to which the present decision-process is flowing through a channel laid out like a template according to the way previous decisions and events unfolded.

The question of war with Iraq appears to have been influenced greatly by the World War II analogy. Rumsfeld's two key advisors, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith shared a common background that was seminal in each's choice of career and domain of interest, and appears to have shaped the way the two men viewed and understood the situation in Iraq.

Feith's father grew up in pre-WW2 Poland and Germany and became a sailor, adopting what Feith describes as an "uncommon occupation for a Jew." The senior Feith took heroic action, helping to smuggle Jews off the Continent and onto the British Isles. Captured by the Germans, held in solitary confinement and tortured, he escaped Germany, emigrated to America, and served in the U.S. merchant marines for the remainder of the war. Both of his parents, along with four of his sisters and all three of his brothers were murdered in the holocaust.

Partly as a result of his father's story, young Douglas Feith grew up with an abiding interest in history, and especially the circumstances of pre-WW2 Europe in which the British leaders sought to contain Hitler even as his father smuggled desperate Jews off the continent. Educating himself, Feith says he "read books on diplomacy, politics and government," and concluded that "nothing short of war could have stopped, let alone reversed, the Nazi aggression." Feith says that his study affected his views during the Vietnam War, as he began to question the prevailing view among his peers that war is never necessary. Indeed, he says. "the failures of appeasement in the 1930s made me skeptical about the promises of demonstrably bad actors -- tyrants, murderers, liars, terrorists and the like."

Paul Wolfowitz family history is remarkably similar to that of Feith, though Feith does not note the similarities of factors that shaped their thinking in his War & Decision.Wolfowitz' father, too, was a holocaust survivor.

Though he himself left Poland after WW1, the rest of his family perished in the holocaust [12]

Wikipedia notes that "As a boy, Wolfowitz devoured books about the Holocaust and Hiroshima—what he calls 'the polar horrors'".[3] Speaking of the influence of the Holocaust on his views, Wolfowitz said:

"That sense of what happened in Europe in World War II has shaped a lot of my views ... It's a very bad thing when people exterminate other people, and people persecute minorities. It doesn't mean you can prevent every such incident in the world, but it's also a mistake to dismiss that sort of concern as merely humanitarian and not related to real interest."[12] He told the NY Times that

As Wolfowitz observed the American policy of "containing" the Iraqi threat to peace as a post Gulf War policy, he saw similarity to the British efforts to contain and appease Hitler's threats to pre-WW2 Europe. He told the NY Times (Ricks, pg. 16) th"that sense of waht happened in EUrope in World War 2 has shaped a lot of my views."

World War II as Analogy to Iraq

Strategic thinking is characterized by openness to new and different ideas. And one way to generate new and different perspectives on strategic situations is through the use of metaphor, or its close relative analogy, perhaps the most advanced form of human thinking. As Aristotle said in Poetics, “the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.” It is “a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.”

In their Harvard Business Review article entitled “How Strategists Really Think,” Giovanni Gavetti and Jan W. Rivkin show that reasoning by analogy plays a major role in the thinking of successful strategists. As an example, these writers point to Intel chairman Andy Grove’s story of how he came up with an important business strategy. Attending a management seminar, Grove heard the story of how fledgling “mini-mills” in the steel industry began in the 1970s to offer a low-end product—inexpensive concrete-reinforcing bars known as rebar. Establishing market share with the low-end products, these steel companies then began to migrate up the hierarchy of products toward the higher-end, more lucrative steel products. U.S. Steel, which had ceded the low-end products to the smaller and seemingly insignificant players, was caught unawares by the companies attacking the market for their core business and lost market share over a number of years.

An epiphany struck Andy Grove as he sat in that management seminar, thinking about the steel industry. Using what Gavetti and Rivkin call “analogical thinking,” Grove saw that Intel was sitting in a similar situation to that of U.S. Steel in the 1970s. Intel had theretofore leaned toward ceding low-end computer chips to niche players, a strategy that, Grove now realized, would put Intel in a dangerous situation. He began to see low-end computers as “digital rebar,” a metaphorical image that helped him in articulating his strategy to Intel management. “If we lose the low end today,” Grove said, “ we could lose the high end tomorrow.” As a result of this thinking, and the deliberations that followed, Intel redoubled its efforts to market the low-end “Celeron processor” for low-end personal computers.

Though a mental model—a hypothesis about cause and effect—provides a useful way of understanding the dynamics and working of the world around us, blind adherence to entrenched models can be dangerous. Once we close our eyes to disconfirming evidence, once we fail to see the weaknesses of our assumptions about cause and effect, we have failed as systems thinkers.

History, of course, is replete with examples of people adhering stubbornly to old paradigms despite overwhelming evidence that a new way of thinking has become necessary.

Mental models become the frames through which we view the world. We attend to what is inside our frame, oblivious sometimes to what occurs outside our frames, which can lead to dangerous blind spots. Frames can be useful insofar as they direct our attention toward the information we seek. But they can also constrict our peripheral vision, keeping us from noticing important information and, perhaps, opportunities. Once liberating, mental models can become shackles.

As an illustration of the way in which mental models and frames can get out of hand, consider Donald Schon’s concept of a generative metaphor. A generative metaphor is an “implicit metaphor that can cast a kind of spell on a community. All solutions are understood in terms of the implicit metaphor.” Some work cultures, for example, use a sports analogy as their generative metaphor, ubiquitously describing events in sports language and casting solutions as “game plans.” A generative metaphor like this can be healthy, but it can also restrict creativity and problem-solving, since the “team” may miss out on ideas and options not endemic to the metaphorical world at hand.

At times, an over-used generative metaphor can lead to a group dynamic known as groupthink. When cultural propensities like this become problematic, leaders can stimulate positive organizational change by introducing new and useful generative metaphors as they communicate with others. The new metaphor can provide people with a lens through which to see things anew and lead to positive change in the work atmosphere and business results.

Turning to history for guidance is the essence of wisdom. Thucydidies, the Greek historian of (XXX BC) said that he "wrote for those who want to udnerstand clearly the events which happened in the past and whihc (humna nature being what it is) will at some time or tother and in much the same ways be repeated inthe future."

N & M suggest "boarding" the Likeness and Differences between the present situation and a given analogy as a way of finding useful ways of thinking while limiting over-use of and particluar guiding metaphor. Had DOD decision-makers used such a process, they may have produced a chart like the following:


  • Saddam, like Hitler, was a tyrannical leader who controlled his minions through intimidation.
  • Saddam had once tried and succeeded at over-running a neighboring country (Kuwait) with the use of conventional armored force, much as Hitler's armed forces overwhelmed, say, the Netherlands in 1940.
  • Saddam did not hesitate to use torture or maiming in controlling his own people.
  • Henchmen like Saddam's sons (XX) displayed ruthlessness reminiscent of (XXX).


  • Unlike the liberation of WW2 France, an American-led victory did not free an otherwise untied people.
  • Unlike the vanquished WW2 Germany, surviving Iraqis were divided into multiple factions, some with an interest in continued strife in the country as battles heated up for control of the future.
  • The liberated France of WW2 reestablished a country with a strong sense of national identity, culture and language. Iraq had been cobbled together (when XXX)

Assumption 1: There is a nexus between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the acts committed by al Qaeda terrorists on September 11, 2001.

Years later, a memo written by Wolfowitz surfaced during congressional investigations. The memo appears to imply an assumption by the DOD officials that a link between Iraq exists, and simply needs to be found.

LA Times Article by Peter SpiegelApril 06, 2007:

Just four months after the Sept. 11 attacks, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz dashed off a memo to a senior Pentagon colleague, demanding action to identify connections between Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime and Al Qaeda.

“We don’t seem to be making much progress pulling together intelligence on links between Iraq and Al Qaeda,” Wolfowitz wrote in the Jan. 22, 2002, memo to Douglas J. Feith, the department’s No. 3 official.

Using Pentagon jargon for the secretary of Defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, he added: “We owe SecDef some analysis of this subject. Please give me a recommendation on how best to proceed. Appreciate the short turn-around.”

Wolfowitz’s memo, released Thursday, is included in a recently declassified report by the Pentagon’s inspector general. The memo marked the beginnings of what would become a controversial yearlong Pentagon project supervised by Feith to convince the most senior members of the Bush administration that Hussein and Al Qaeda were linked – a conclusion that was hotly disputed by U.S. intelligence agencies at the time and has been discredited in the years since.

Hear Feith defend his role in pre-Iraq decision-making here:

Eventually, the decision was framed from the perspective of the DOD "neo-cons." Bush would make a choice to go to war in the interest of spreading democracy. The world was told, though, that war was necessary to defend the region from weapons of mass destruction. As Feith defended the decision process years later, he insists that war was necessary regardless of the presence of WMD.  The key error made by the Bush administration, he suggests, was not in assuming the presence of WMD, but in creating that impression on the global audience. The Administration, he says, should have been forthright in portraying the war as a matter of standing up for freedom.