Seven steps to ‘reframing’ problems

by HRD26 Dec 2016
While most organisations are good at solving problems, business consultant Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg said that his research showed that what companies struggle with is diagnosing the right problems.

“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 organisations were bad at problem diagnosis, and 87% strongly agreed or agreed that this flaw carried significant costs,” he said at Harvard Business Review.

Managers tend to jump right in and offer solutions to problems without truly understanding what the problems are, he added.

His advise is to ‘reframe’ the problem in a such a way that it will lead to “creative solutions by unearthing radically different framings of familiar and persistent problems”.

Take the example of the ‘slow elevator problem’, he said.

In an office building, tenants are threatening to end their leases because of the slow elevator. When asked for solutions, most agreed that it was time to change the elevator.

“However, when the problem is presented to building managers, they suggest a much more elegant solution: Put up mirrors next to the elevator,” he said.

“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.”

He noted that the initial framing of the problem was not wrong; a new elevator would probably be a good idea but ‘reframing’ aims to see if there is a better problem to solve, he said.

“In fact, the very idea that a single root problem exists may be misleading; problems are typically multicausal and can be addressed in many ways,” he added.

He also said there are seven steps companies can use to effectively ‘reframe’ problems in the workplace.

‘Establish legitimacy’
Your organisation may be wary of the concept of ‘reframing’ particularly when it seems like a radical idea so Wedell-Wedellsborg suggested relating the problem of the slow elevator to establish the legitimacy of 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,” he said.

Get an outsider’s opinion
The author calls this the “single most helpful reframing practice”. But when he says ‘outsider’, he means a person not directly involved with the problem-solving rather another employee that could help see things from a different perspective.

Have everything written down
Even before you call a meeting, Wedell-Wedellsberg said get all the participants’ definition of what they think the problem is. 

“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,” he said.

These different perspectives would also sensitize you to the thought processes of stakeholders, he added.

‘Ask what’s missing’
Don’t assume that all the facts stated are the only points of importance rather ask explicitly about matters that may not have been captured or mentioned, he said.

‘Consider multiple categories’
As mentioned before, most problems are multicausal and this means it falls into different categories as well.

Look at the positives
Pinpoint a time when your specific problem did not arise and analyse that situation to see what happened differently.

“Exploring such positive exceptions, sometimes called bright spots, can often uncover hidden factors whose influence the group may not have considered,” he said.

‘Question the objective’
Reframe the problem by clarifying the objectives of all parties involved and then challenging them to shift their perspective to come up with an objective that all participants agree on.


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