Are you solving the right problems?

by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg

January 20, 2017 | 1:44 pm
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How good is your company at problem solving? Probably quite good, if your managers are like those at the companies I’ve studied. What they struggle with, it turns out, is not solving problems but figuring out what the problems are. In surveys of 106 corner-suite executives who represented 91 private- and public-sector companies in 17 countries, 85% strongly agreed or agreed that their organizations were bad at problem diagnosis. Managers tend to switch quickly into solution mode without checking whether they really understand the problem.

It has been 40 years since Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jacob Getzels empirically demonstrated the central role of problem framing in creativity. Thinkers from Albert Einstein to Peter Drucker have emphasized the importance of properly diagnosing your problems. So why do organizations still struggle to get it right?

Through my research on corporate innovation, I’ve spent close to 10 years working with and studying reframing — first in the narrow context of organizational change and then more broadly. To put reframing in context, I’ll explain what this approach is trying to achieve.


Imagine this: You are the owner of an office building, and your tenants are complaining about the elevator. It’s old and slow, and they have to wait a lot. Several tenants are threatening to break their leases if you don’t fix the problem.

When asked, most people quickly identify some solutions: Replace the lift, install a stronger motor or perhaps upgrade the algorithm that runs the lift.

However, when the problem is presented to building managers, they suggest a much more elegant solution: Put up mirrors next to the elevator. This simple measure has proved wonderfully effective in reducing complaints, because people tend to lose track of time when given something utterly fascinating to look at — namely, themselves.

Note that the initial framing of the problem isn’t necessarily wrong. Installing a new lift would probably work. The point of reframing is not to find the “real” problem but, rather, to see if there is a better one to solve. Identifying a different aspect of the problem can sometimes deliver radical improvements — and even spark solutions to problems that have seemed intractable for decades.


In my experience, reframing is best taught as a quick, iterative process. Here are the seven practices:


It’s difficult to use reframing if you are the only person in the room who understands the method. Your first job, therefore, is to establish the method’s legitimacy within the group, creating the conversational space necessary to employ reframing. Relate the slow elevator problem, which is my go-to example when I have less than 30 seconds to explain the concept.


Getting an outsider’s perspective can be instrumental in rethinking a problem quickly and properly. To do so most effectively:

— Look for “boundary spanners.” The most useful input tends to come from people who understand but aren’t fully part of your world.

— Choose someone who will speak freely. You might consider turning to someone whose career advancement will not be determined by the group in question.

— Expect input, not solutions. By definition, outsiders aren’t experts on the situation and thus will rarely be able to solve the problem. So when you bring them in, ask them specifically to challenge the group’s thinking, and prime the problem owners to look for input rather than answers.


It’s not unusual for people to leave a meeting thinking they all agree on what the problem is after an oral description, only to discover weeks or months later that they had different views of the issue.

Individual definitions of the problem should ideally be gathered in advance of a discussion. If possible, ask people to send you a few lines in a confidential email. Then copy the definitions you’ve collected on a flip chart so that everyone can see them and react to them in the meeting. Don’t attribute them, because you want to ensure that people’s judgment of a definition isn’t affected by the definer’s identity or status.

Receiving these multiple definitions will sensitize you to the perspectives of other stakeholders.


When faced with the description of a problem, people tend to delve into the details of what has been stated, paying less attention to what the description might be leaving out. To rectify this, make sure to ask explicitly what hasn’t been captured or mentioned.


Powerful change can come from transforming people’s perception of a problem. One way to trigger this kind of paradigm shift is to invite people to identify specifically what category of problem they think the group is facing. Is it an incentive problem? An expectations problem? An attitude problem? Suggest other categories.

By explicitly highlighting how the group thinks about a problem, you can often help people reframe it, even if you don’t have other frames to suggest. And it’s a useful way of sorting through written definitions if you managed to gather them in advance.


To find additional problem framings, look to instances when the problem didn’t occur, asking, “What was different about that situation?” Exploring such positive exceptions can often uncover hidden factors whose influence the group may not have considered.


In the negotiation classic “Getting to Yes,” Roger Fisher, William L. Ury and Bruce Patton share the story about two people fighting over whether to keep a window open or closed. The underlying goals of the two turn out to differ: One person wants fresh air, while the other wants to avoid a draft. Only when these hidden objectives are brought to light through the questions of a third person is the problem resolved — by opening a window in the next room.

That story highlights another way to reframe a problem — by paying explicit attention to the objectives of the parties involved, first clarifying and then challenging them.


Powerful as reframing can be, it takes time and practice to get good at it. As you start to work more with the method, urge your team to trust the process, and be prepared for it to feel messy and confusing at times.

Finally, combine reframing with real-world testing — don’t wait too long before getting out of the building to observe your customers and prototype your ideas. Neither thinking nor testing alone, but a marriage of the two, holds the key to radically better results

by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg

January 20, 2017 | 1:44 pm
  |     |     |   Start Conversation

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