3 ways to reframe your problem for a successful solution

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Science and technology revolutionise our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response.
— Arthur M.Schlesinger

Many companies don't struggle with solving problems, but they do struggle with what is the problem. Across 17 countries, Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg surveyed 106 C-suite executives from 91 private and public sector companies. 85% of executives said their companies were bad at diagnosing problems and 87% agreed this incurred significant costs. Most managers tend to leap straight into searching for solutions, without checking they deeply understand the problem.

The good news is most creative problem-solving comes from reframing your problem and providing alternative definitions of your problem. We reframe the problem to see if there is a better problem to solve. Problems often have more than one cause, so a solution could be in solving any one of the many causes.

Example of redefining a problem:

Tenants are complaining a lift in the building is slow and they are threatening not to renew their leases.

Replacing or upgrading the lift are the most obvious solutions. However, what if the problem was reframed to: the wait for the elevator is too long. Different solutions were revealed, such as putting mirrors up by the elevator and playing music. As they wait, people will lose track of time when given something fascinating to look at - themselves.

1. Check people's understanding

Get people's definition of the problem in writing. Ask people to describe the problem in a sentence or two, and see how people's framings differ. Insist people write in sentence form, because bullet points are too condensed. Ask for this information before you begin your problem-solving meeting. At the start of the meeting, copy the definitions onto a flip chart so everyone can see them and react to them. But, don't attribute them, so people only judge the definition of the problem and are unaffected by the definer's identity or status.

A new solution can lie in seeing the problem through someone else's eyes - changing the frame.

2. Analyse positive exceptions

Search for instances when the problem did not occur, asking "What was different about that situation?" The differences can often uncover hidden reasons the group may not have considered. 

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For example, partners at a law firm discovered their firm never implemented solutions except when an ambitious associate was present in their meetings. Wanting to impress and outcompete the other associates, the ambitious associate was driven to implement the solutions alongside their daily activities. The solution was to always include an ambitious associate in planning meetings.

Looking at positive exceptions can also make the discussion less threatening. Dissecting a string of failures can quickly become confrontational and make people too defensive. Ask the group's members to analyse a positive outcome; it becomes easier for them to examine their own behaviour. The missing ingredient to success often leads to a new solution.

3. Find the solution from people already working on the problem

Finding a solution often lies inside the collective memory of the people already working on the problem. Someone working to solve the problem knows something that will help them find a solution - they just haven't found it yet. When using creative problem-solving, the statement of the problem is the cue to drawing related information from their memory. How can you generate a variety of possible solutions to a problem? Simply change the statement of the problem in ways that leads to drawing new information from their memories.

A problem's perspective or framing changes people's thinking to find new solutions. An earlier blog - Take a different view and solve your problems faster - provides another way to reframe your problem.