Framing the Landscape


At Microsoft, 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?”  A Frame is simply a way to partition a problem.  The heart of a frame is coming up with a context to understand the dimensions that matter and figure out how to prioritize and scope.  One way teams often frame a space is by building a catalog of user stories and then organizing them into themes.

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?

Photo by Victor Bezrukov.