Ever wondered why some solutions seem natural and second-nature when they’re presented to you?  Often, it’s because the problem solver has dug deeper than the surface to find the real culprit of the issue.

Just as we stress to school children to ensure they ‘read the question’ in exams before writing an answer the same is true in business – we need to understand the issue at hand before we can offer a solution.  Redefining the problem at hand often leads to creative solutions as you can shift focus to a better problem to solve.

Take a slow lift (elevator) ever wondered why the section of the lobby where the lifts are located is surrounded by mirrors?  Turns out it’s a design trick building managers use to make us think the wait for the lift is shorter than it really is – apparently, us humans get distracted easily (by our own reflections) and this causes us to lose track of time. In this example, the problem was reframed from ‘how do we make the lifts faster?’ to ‘how can we make the wait for a lift feel shorter?”  So rather than spend considerable sums of money on upgrading lift technology or infrastructure a few well positioned mirrors will deal with complaints of a slow lift.

 

7 Steps for Reframing Problems

 

  1. Establish legitimacy: If you’re the only person in the room trying to use a reframing technique you’re likely going to be silenced by others who feel like you’re being counterproductive.  You need others to see reframing as a legitimate problem solving technique and they need to have a basic understanding – try explaining the lift example above to them.
  2. Bring in outsiders: Someone who has a general understanding of your ‘world’ but isn’t fully part of it can help you look at problems from another angle.  Make sure you choose someone who will speak their mind but not necessarily put forward solutions – you’re after their observations that will challenge your thinking.
  3. Get problem definitions in writing: How many times have you had a meeting and walked out only to discover later that you weren’t on the same page as other meeting participants?  Consider getting participants to email their definition of the problem to be solved prior to the meeting (get them to use sentences) and present the differing definitions (without acknowledgement) at the start of the meeting so that the group can confirm the issue that is on the table.
  4. Ask what’s missing:Ensure you cover off on what the problem definition is leaving out.
  5. Consider Multiple Categories: We tend to jump into problems without considering how they might fit into multiple categories – is it an ‘attitude’ ‘incentive’ ‘user experience’ or ‘expectation’ problem?
  6. Analyse positive exceptions: look for instances where the problem didn’t occur and ask ‘what was different then?’
  7. Question the objective: Understanding and challenging the objectives of the parties involved can lead to new solutions.

Have a go next time you have a conundrum to solve – it might feel a bit messy at first but you will get the hang of it and find it easier over time.

(based on HBR Article “Are You Solving the Right Problems?” Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg (Jan/Feb 17))