“If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it,” Albert Einstein.
This phrase has been coming up again and again in the readings for class and my private and work life. Ever since Michael Haas brought it up during his presentation a few weeks ago, I could not help but wrestle with this idea. It sounds so counterintuitive, but also illustrates the power of habitual, automatic thinking. Because it stems from such strong mind conditioning, we want to produce solutions as soon and as quickly as possible. This instinct to hurry problem-solving permeates organizations as well. Wayne Spradlin, President and CEO of InnoCentive, points it out in “Are you solving the right problem?” Without clearly understanding the complexities of a problem and applying rigorous diagnostics, he stresses, teams often rush to implement ill-fitted solutions that do not even address the core challenge. As an antidote, Spradlin outlines a process designed to increase all-encompassing comprehension of the issue at stake. I will briefly innumerate the steps here for a reference:
- Establish the need for a solution
- Justify the need
- Contextualize the problem
- Write the problem statement
The system he developed offers a thorough and well-rounded foundation for problem-solving framework. But I want to present a complimentary idea to Spradlin’s seemingly, unconventional approach to the business toolbox. Intended for the same objective of thorough understanding and dissecting a central problem, this method triggers a necessary shift in perspective which produces radically better solutions. Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, author of the book “What’s your problem?”, calls the method Reframing. I read a condensed version of the model intro in one of the articles he wrote for Harvard Business Review. In a nutshell, Reframing is a way of looking at the problems from novel angles (though, it is not as easy as it sounds due to, once again, stereotypical, habitual thinking). Frankly, I was not sold on the idea until he illustrated the concept of reframing in a very memorable example. A landlord had slow working elevators that caused tenants in his building to complain and, in some cases, threaten to break their lease. One of the obvious solutions was to make the elevators faster, which would involve costly lift replacements, a motor upgrade, algorithm improvements, etc. When the problem was presented to a team of building managers, they suggested installing … a MIRROR next to the elevator. Evidently, people tend to lose track of time when given something fascinating to look at, in this case-themselves. This simple solution that proved amazingly effective tackled a covert, underlying problem (tenants’ aggravation during wait time) rather than an obvious one (slow elevator). Thus, instead of wasting resources on solving technical issues, reframing the problem made the wait less irritating.
To adequately employ this method and access its full potential, Wedell-Wedellsborg suggests a few critical steps:
- Bring in the outsider’s perspective. When rethinking the problem, someone who is familiar with the industry but not too involved can provide the most valuable input.
- What’s missing. People tend to dwell on the predefined parameters when dealing with an issue. Asking questions about what is not captured in a problem statement can illuminate unseen angles.
- Positive exceptions analysis. When the problem did not occur, what was different about the situation or context? While analyzing answers to the question, we might uncover additional ways of thinking that have not been considered and gain actionable insight in some cases (those a-ha moments).
- Get problem definition in writing. Oftentimes, a group’s consensus on a problem or issue is only assessed verbally during the meeting. But to make sure, everyone agrees on a problem definition, it is critical to get everyone’s statement separately. This can be done on a whiteboard for example.
The power of reframing has been around for decades. It boils down to one main idea: The way we see the problem (or frame it) will define the quality of our solutions. But just like any other methodology or a tool, it is not intended to work on every problem every time. However, we won’t know until we try.
Harvard Business Review (Director). (2016, November 29). [Video file]. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://www.facebook.com/HBR/videos/are-you-solving-the-right-problems-with-thomas-wedell-wedellsborg-hbrlive/10154597616307787/
Spradlin, D. (2019, August 23). Are You Solving the Right Problem? Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2012/09/are-you-solving-the-right-problem
Wedell-Wedellsborg, T. (2017, January 18). Are You Solving the Right Problems? Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2017/01/are-you-solving-the-right-problems