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Tube socks and traffic

If you’re ever a tourist in Vancouver in the summer, ask any long-time resident to recommend a place to get a scoop of ice cream. Odds are high they’ll suggest a certain gelato shop on the east side of the city.

This particular gelato shop hasn’t been around for very long, as far as iconic municipal institutions go. It started life in 1982 as a café and pizzeria that also happened to serve gelato. In 1994, it moved a couple of dozen blocks north to an industrial neighborhood dotted with warehouses.

The move might have seemed an odd, risky choice – were it not for two strategic changes the shop made. The first, obviously, was the decision to drop pizza and paninis from the menu and to focus on gelato. The second was to increase the number of flavors they made. At their first location, they served 12 kinds of gelato. At last count, they were serving more than 200.

Even these two changes alone might not have led to the degree of success they’ve had, were it not for one more key decision. In fact, you could call it a series of decisions – that is, deciding which flavors of gelato to make next.

One path would have been to stick with typical ice cream flavors familiar to Vancouverites. Pick a taste that’s sweet (fruit, chocolate, candy) or neutral (peanut butter, pecan), mix it with a gelato base, and voila – you get your safe, salable flavor. In fact, a good portion of their menu is based on this paradigm, no doubt because they know it sells.

But the flavors that get the most attention are the ones outside the norm. Chili, garlic, wasabi, vinegar, and dandelion have been featured in a list that changes regularly. Gorgonzola is the one I always associate with the shop, since it’s the one I tried on my first visit.

For a business that relies on high-volume foot traffic in such an out-of-the-way location, choosing exotic flavors that drive word of mouth was a stroke of genius. Naturally, the flavors people tell their friends about after a visit are the ones incongruous with a North American dessert palate. I’ve had three people tell me on separate occasions that I should try the blue cheese.

Of course, the wackiest flavors may not be what people ultimately buy after tasting a teaspoonful – after all, who wants to eat a whole scoop of ice cream if it’s like munching on a frozen, sweaty tube sock – but they create great conversation points. Not coincidentally, the shop’s popularity surged after they began adding more and more weird flavors, and curiosity continues to be vital to the shop’s existence.

What’s in your shadow?

How does this tie in to decision-making – and specifically, decisions made by groups?

Frames.

In the context of decision-making, a frame can be imagined as the boundary to the choices you’re considering. Creating a frame is the first key step to a good decision.

The smaller your frame, the more likely it is that the best choice will lie outside the frame. The larger your frame, the more likely it is that the best choice will be within your scope of consideration.

As an individual, your frame boundary is limited by the things you know. A wise decision-maker is one that invites people with a wide variety of experiences to help frame the decision. At a software company, the vice president of product management might be responsible for a final decision on product strategy, but she’s smart to include input from tech support and sales when considering possible features for new releases.

Imagine that the gelato shop had bounded its decision within the frame of typical North American flavors. “What flavor should we add next? Let’s see – what new sweet or neutral taste would go well with our gelato base?”

Would that approach have led to an interesting, successful flavor? Perhaps, but it’s unlikely that it would have driven as much word of mouth as the strawberry-jalapeno flavor that someone, writing in her blog, said, “tore my face right off.”

Instead of staying within familiar boundaries, the shop expanded the frame of their decision to include the entire scope of flavors – sweet, bitter, salty, and sour. Nothing, apparently, was out of bounds.

In the case of this gelato shop, I don’t know what made them able to expand their frame beyond the scope of typical flavors. It’s entirely possible that they started by simply copying flavors that they’d seen elsewhere. Vancouver is a diverse city and I’ve seen imported ice cream with flavors like durian and purple yam.

In any case, the lesson learned is to always consider expanding your frame for important decisions. Often, the easiest way to do this is to add more people to the conversation – thereby adding more ingredients to your frame. Even if you’re the one responsible for ultimately creating the recipe, you don’t want to limit your repertoire of dishes to just the recipes you already know. If a certain ingredient is missing from your frame, you’re unlikely to notice that it’s missing by yourself.

In their book on decision-making strategies, Winning Decisions, J. Edward Russo and Paul J.H. Schoemaker call these self-imposed gaps of consideration the “shadows” of a frame.

“Frames impose boundaries, leaving some options, consequences, or considerations so far into the shadows that they are banished from view altogether. These mental boundaries may take the form of geographic regions, time frames, functions, budgets, and the like.” (from Chapter 2)

If you’re currently contemplating a decision – and you haven’t yet defined its frame – consider using a collaborative decision-making tool to add more voices to the conversation and illuminate the shadows of your decision frame.

12sprints is one option – it’s the codename for an upcoming collaborative decision-making environment from SAP. Beta: (codename) 12sprints – what is it, and how can you register? or request a spot in the beta program.

The discussion above covers just one small scoop of frame theory. For a far more detailed and engaging study of frames and other decision-making concepts, I recommend buying or borrowing Winning Decisions to read in full.

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