Insightful 7 steps to reframing your problem.

Continued from our last article

3. Get people’s definitions in writing.

It’s not unusual for people to leave a meeting thinking they all agree on what the problem is after a loose oral description, only to discover weeks or months later that they had different views of the issue. Moreover, a successful reframing may well lurk in one of those views.

For instance, a management team may agree that the company’s problem is a lack of innovation. But if you ask each member to describe what’s wrong in a sentence or two, you will quickly see how framings differ. Some people will claim, “Our employees aren’t motivated to innovate” or “They don’t understand the urgency of the situation.” Others will say, “People don’t have the right skill set,” “Our customers aren’t willing to pay for innovation,” or “We don’t reward people for innovation.” Pay close attention to the wording, because even seemingly inconsequential word choices can surface a new perspective on the problem.

I saw a memorable demonstration of this when I was working with a group of managers in the construction industry, exploring what they could do as individual leaders to deliver better results. As we tried to identify the barriers each one faced, I asked them to write their problems on flip charts, after which we jointly analyzed the statements. The very first comment from the group had the greatest impact: “Almost none of the definitions include the word ‘I.’” With one exception, the problems were consistently worded in a way that diffused individual responsibility, such as “My team doesn’t…,” “The market doesn’t…,” and, in a few cases, “We don’t…” That one observation shifted the tenor of the meeting, pushing the participants to take more ownership of the challenges they faced.

These 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 e-mail, and insist that they write in sentence form—bullet points are simply too condensed. 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. We all appreciate in theory that others may experience a problem differently (or not see it at all). But as demonstrated in a recent study by Johannes Hattula, of Imperial College London, if managers try to imagine a customer’s perspective themselves, they typically get it wrong. To understand what other stakeholders think, you need to hear it from them.

4. Ask what’s missing.

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 has not been captured or mentioned.

Recently I worked with a team of senior executives in Brazil who had been asked to provide their CEO with ideas for improving the market’s perception of the company’s stock price. The team had expertly analyzed the components affecting a stock’s value—the P/E ratio forecast, the debt ratio, earnings per share, and so on. Of course, none of this was news to the CEO, nor were these factors particularly easy to affect, leading to mild despondency on the team.

But when I prompted the executives to zoom out and consider what was missing from their definition of the problem, something new came up. It turned out that when external financial analysts asked to speak with executives from the company, the task of responding was typically delegated to slightly more junior leaders, none of whom had received training in how to talk to analysts. As soon as this point was raised, the group saw that it had found a potential recommendation for the CEO. (The observation came not from the team’s finance expert but from a boundary-spanning HR executive.)

5. Consider multiple categories.

As Lori Weise’s story demonstrates, 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? Then try to suggest other categories.

A manager I know named Jeremiah Zinn did this when he led the product development team of the popular children’s entertainment channel Nickelodeon. The team was launching a promising new app, and lots of kids downloaded it. But actually activating the app was somewhat complicated, because it required logging in to the household’s cable TV service. At that point in the sign-up process, almost every kid dropped out.

Seeing the problem as one of usability, the team put its expertise to work and ran hundreds of A/B tests on various sign-up flows, seeking to make the process less complex. Nothing helped.

The shift came when Zinn realized that the team members had been thinking of the problem too narrowly. They had focused on the kids’ actions, carefully tracking every click and swipe—but they had not explored how the kids felt during the sign-up process. That turned out to be critical. As the team started looking for emotional reactions, it discovered that the request for the cable password made the kids fear getting in trouble: To a 10-year-old kid, a password request signals forbidden territory. Equipped with that insight, Zinn’s team simply added a short video explaining that it was OK to ask parents for the password—and saw a rapid 10-fold increase in the sign-up rate for the app.

By explicitly highlighting how the group thinks about a problem—what is sometimes called metacognition, or thinking about thinking—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.

Zinn’s story also exposes a typical pitfall in problem solving, first expressed by Abraham Kaplan in his famous law of the instrument: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” At Nickelodeon, because the team members were usability experts, they defaulted to thinking the problem was one of usability.

6. Analyze positive exceptions.

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

A lawyer I spoke to, for instance, told me that the partners at his firm would occasionally meet to discuss initiatives that might grow their business in the longer term. But to his frustration, the instant one of those meetings ended, he and the other partners went back to focusing on landing the next short-term project. When prompted to think of positive exceptions, he remembered one longer-term initiative that had in fact gone forward.

What was different about that one? I asked. It was that the meeting, unusually, had included not just partners but also an associate who was considered a rising star—and it was she who had pursued the idea. That immediately suggested that talented associates be included in future meetings. The associates felt privileged and energized by being invited to the strategic discussions, and unlike the partners, they had a clear short-term incentive to move on long-term projects—namely, to impress the partners and gain an edge in the competition against their peers.

A checklist for problem diagnosis tends to discourage actual thinking.

Looking at positive exceptions can also make the discussion less threatening. Especially in a large group or other public setting, dissecting a string of failures can quickly become confrontational and make people overly defensive. If, instead, you ask the group’s members to analyze a positive outcome, it becomes easier for them to examine their own behavior.

7. Question the objective.

In the negotiation classic Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, and Bruce Patton share the early management thinker Mary Parker Follett’s 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. Weise’s shelter intervention program, for instance, hinged on a shift in the objective, from increasing adoption to keeping more pets with their original owners. The story of Charlotte, too, included a shift in the stated goals of the management team, from teaching innovation skills to boosting employee engagement.

As described in Fred Kaplan’s book The Insurgents, a famous contemporary example is the change in U.S. military doctrine pioneered by General David Petraeus, among others. In traditional warfare, the aim of a battle is to defeat the enemy forces. But Petraeus and his allies argued that when dealing with insurgencies, the army had to pursue a different, broader objective to prevent new enemies from cropping up—namely, get the populace on its side, thereby removing the source of recruits and other forms of local support the insurgency needed to operate in the area. That approach was eventually adopted by the military—because a small group of rogue thinkers took it upon themselves to question the predefined and long-standing objectives of their organization.



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