Are You Solving the Right Problems?

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 C-suite executives who represented 91 private and public-sector companies in 17 countries, I found that a full 85% strongly agreed or agreed that their organizations were bad at problem diagnosis, and 87% strongly agreed or agreed that this flaw carried significant costs. Fewer than one in 10 said they were unaffected by the issue. The pattern is clear: Spurred by a penchant for action, 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?

Part of the reason is that we tend to overengineer the diagnostic process. Many existing frameworks—TRIZ, Six Sigma, Scrum, and others—are quite comprehensive. When properly applied, they can be tremendously powerful. But their very thoroughness also makes them too complex and time-consuming to fit into a regular workday. The setting in which people most need to be better at problem diagnosis is not the annual strategy seminar but the daily meeting—so we need tools that don’t require the entire organization to undergo weeks-long training programs.

But even when people apply simpler problem-diagnosis frameworks, such as root cause analysis and the related 5 Whys questioning technique, they often find themselves digging deeper into the problem they’ve already defined rather than arriving at another diagnosis. That can be helpful, certainly. But creative solutions nearly always come from an alternative definition of your problem.

Through many researches on corporate innovation, much of it conducted by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg with his colleague Paddy Miller, He spent close to 10 years working with and studying reframing—first in the narrow context of organizational change and then more broadly. In the following pages he offered a new approach to problem diagnosis that can be applied quickly and, have found, frequently leads to creative solutions by unearthing radically different framings of familiar and persistent problems. Have you thought of reframing? Here are the seven practices:

Seven Practices for Effective Reframing

From experience, reframing is best taught as a quick, iterative process. You might think of it as a cognitive counterpoint to rapid prototyping.

The practices outlined here can be used in one of two ways, depending on how much control you have over the situation. One way is to methodically apply all seven to the problem. That can be done in about 30 minutes, and it has the benefit of familiarizing everyone with the method.

The other way is suitable when you don’t control the situation and have to scale the method according to how much time is available. Perhaps a team member ambushes you in the hallway and you have only five minutes to help him or her rethink a problem. If so, simply select the one or two practices that seem most appropriate.

Five minutes may sound like too little time to even describe a problem, much less reframe it. But surprisingly, I have found that such short interventions are often sufficient to kick-start new thinking—and once in a while they can trigger an aha moment and radically shift your view of a problem. Proximity to your own problems can make it easy to get lost in the weeds, endlessly ruminating about why a colleague, a spouse, or your children won’t listen. Sometimes all you need is someone to suggest, “Well, could the trouble be that you are bad at listening to them?”

Of course, not all problems are that simple. Often multiple rounds of reframing—interspersed with observation, conversation, and prototyping—are necessary. And in some cases reframing won’t help at all. But you won’t know which problems can benefit from being reframed until you try. Once you’ve mastered the five-minute version, you can apply reframing to pretty much any problem you face.

1. Establish legitimacy.

It’s difficult to use reframing if you are the only person in the room who understands the method. Other people, driven by a desire to find solutions, may feel that your insistence on discussing the problem is counterproductive. If the group has a power imbalance, such as when you’re facing clients or more-senior colleagues, they may well shut you down before you even get started. And even powerful executives may find it hard to use the method when people are accustomed to getting answers rather than questions from their leaders.

Your first job, therefore, is to establish the method’s legitimacy within the group, creating the conversational space necessary to employ reframing. I suggest two ways to do this. The first is to share this article with the people you are meeting. Even if they don’t read it, simply seeing it may persuade them to listen to you. The second is to relate the slow elevator problem, which is my go-to example when I have less than 30 seconds to explain the concept. I have found it to be a powerful way to quickly explain reframing—how it differs from merely diagnosing a problem and how it can potentially create dramatically better results.

2. Bring outsiders into the discussion.

This is the single most helpful reframing practice. I saw it in action eight years ago when the management team of a small European company was wrestling with a lack of innovation in its workforce. The managers had recently encountered a specific innovation training technique they all liked, so they started discussing how best to implement it within the organization.

Sensing that the group lacked an outside voice, the general manager asked his personal assistant, Charlotte, to take part in their discussion. “I’ve been working here for 12 years,” Charlotte told the group, “and in that time I have seen three different management teams try to roll out some new innovation framework. None of them worked. I don’t think people would react well to the introduction of another set of buzzwords.”

Charlotte’s observation prompted the managers to realize that they had fallen in love with a solution—introducing an innovation framework—before they fully understood the problem. They soon concluded that their initial diagnosis had been wrong: Many of their employees already knew how to innovate, but they didn’t feel very engaged in the company, so they were unlikely to take initiative beyond what their job descriptions mandated. What the managers had first framed as a skill-set problem was better approached as a motivation problem.

They abandoned all talk of innovation workshops and instead focused on improving employee engagement by (among other things) giving people more autonomy, introducing flexible working hours, and switching to a more participatory decision-making style. The remedy worked. Within 18 months workplace satisfaction scores had doubled and employee turnover had fallen dramatically. And as people started bringing their creative abilities to bear at work, financial results improved markedly. Four years later the company won an award for being the country’s best place to work.

As this story shows, getting an outsider’s perspective can be instrumental in rethinking a problem quickly and properly. To do so most effectively:

Look for “boundary spanners. As research by Michael Tushman and many others has shown, the most useful input tends to come from people who understand but are not fully part of your world. Charlotte was close enough to the front lines of the company to know how the employees really felt, but she was also close enough to management to understand its priorities and speak its language, making her ideally suited for the task. In contrast, calling on an innovation expert might well have led the team’s members further down the innovation path instead of inspiring them to rethink their problem.

Choose someone who will speak freely. By virtue of her long tenure and her closeness to the general manager, Charlotte felt free to challenge the management team while remaining committed to its objectives. This sense of psychological safety, as Harvard’s Amy C. Edmondson calls it, has been proved to help groups perform better. You might consider turning to someone whose career advancement will not be determined by the group in question or who has a track record of (constructively) speaking truth to power.

Expect input, not solutions. Crucially, Charlotte did not try to provide the group with a solution; rather, her observation made the managers themselves rethink their problem. This pattern is typical. By definition, outsiders are not experts on the situation and thus will rarely be able to solve the problem. That’s not their function. They are there to stimulate the problem owners to think differently. So when you bring them in, ask them specifically to challenge the group’s thinking, and prime the problem owners to listen and look for input rather than answers.

To be continued in the next article.



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