There’s a great cafe-style seafood place not far from my house. At the registers, they don’t have one tip jar, they have two. Each jar has opposing categories that change periodically (Boxers or Briefs, Seahawks or Patriots, Country or Jazz, Rice or Beans).

I’ve heard that places that employ this tactic increase their tips by more than 30%! People can’t resist assigning themselves a group.

We love categories. We can’t help it. It’s key to our evolution. Sure, our ancestors got good at building strong and protective social communities, made things like the wheel and fire, and charted important cyclical events like weather patterns and seasons—but what allowed for all of that was a knack for pattern recognition. We see what makes things similar and what makes them different.

The first words in almost all languages we know of, first made a distinction between humans and non-humans. The next words that develop are almost always category words, as well--distinguishing non-humans (animals) into sub-categories that either fly, swim, or crawl—something along the lines of bird, fish, snake.

These categories, or what I like to call frames, are still essential to how we perceive and describe the world around us. They’re tremendously useful. (Imagine the time you are saved when you tell people you need a plumber recommendation, not just a human-with-a-wrench recommendation).

When I am hosting an improv show, I almost always use a frame to help focus the audience and get them creative when trying to get a suggestion for a scene. If I ask them to “Shout out something!”—there is virtual silence. If I ask them to shout out “something red,” a cacophony of ideas bounces back: “Firetruck!” “Apples!” “My car!” “Strawberries!” “Cinnamon candies!” “Mars!” “The Red Baron!”

Frames both limit and open up possibilities.

But when frames become unconscious to us, they can lead to trouble. Unknowingly, we start casting our votes amongst a limited number of virtual tips jars.

When setting plans, instead of looking for goals that are at the essence of what matters to us, we start looking for goals that fit categories like, “Things the board likes to hear,” or “Things that will impress the neighbors.”

Instead of looking for projects that fit into the frame “Problems we can help our customers fix,” we focus on, “Things that will sound great in an email announcement.”

If you’re framing a starting place, like a suggestion for an improv scene, the category is pretty arbitrary. If you’re framing a desired result, being intentional with your frame is critical.

photo credit: Tip Jars via photopin (license)

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© Andy Zimney and Leading Off the Cuff, 2015.

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Andy Zimney is a writer, speaker, and facilitator. You can learn more about Andy and how he can help you and your team at AndyZimney.com.