Human beings are wired for problem solving. We are trained to quickly find solutions as problems arise. But what if the problem we’re solving is the wrong one? Could we be jumping to solutions that are more costly than they need to be?
At our Business Execution Summit (BEx) 2023, Thomas Weddell-Wedellsborg delivered a lesson showing the power of NOT jumping to solutions. Rather than problem-solving, he described and showed the value of first reframing the problem, ensuring it’s correct and optimized, and then moving to solution finding.
Thomas introduced us to his work by being a guest on one of our first Unleashed Podcasts. That episode was so popular, the decision was easy to bring him to BEx.
Jumping to Solutions
From a very early age we are taught to solve problems. During our school years teachers present us with questions, problems, and situations, and we are asked to come up with the one correct answer. Over time, this helps trains us to be relatively good problem solvers. We are rewarded by being faster and more accurate than others.
Only occasionally are we asked to come up with more than one solution, and rarely if ever are we encouraged to question the problem itself. In fact, questioning the question or problem presented by someone in authority like a teacher could have negative consequences. Therefore, we just don’t do it.
But what if we are solving the wrong problem?
Here is an example: imagine your company is having trouble keeping up with sales orders because you don’t have enough capacity. Accepting the problem as stated, most leaders would jump to working on solutions that would increase capacity – longer hours (overtime), more shifts, additional capital investment in capacity, and so on. Each of these solutions carries a significant cost.
But what if we challenged the problem first. Is it a capacity problem or is it possibly that:
- Our pricing is too low relative to competitive offerings.
- Or our sales teams are too readily discounting.
- The in-field life of our product is too short and requires rapid replacement.
- There is no repair option for our product.
- Customers are not encouraged to hold enough inventory. Are our shipping containers, quantities or volume too small?
- Do we have too much waste or too many defects in our production process.
- Is the bottleneck somewhere else other than in production – sales, order management, quality assurance, packaging, or shipping perhaps.
Let us assume further that after reframing the problem we decide that our pricing is too low. Now when we seek a solution, like a price increase, we avoid the high costs and time of capacity increase, and quickly reap the benefits of better profit.
Why we don’t Reframe Problems
85% of companies waste time and money solving the wrong problems according to Thomas. Part of the reason is the conditioning described above, but there are other reasons too:
- A belief that we don’t have time to reframe problems, we need to solve them so we can get on to the next thing.
- A common management axiom – “bring me solutions not problems.”
- A fear that if we start analysing a problem, we might find more problems.
- An assumption that people get paid to solve problems, not create them.
- We do not know how to reframe.
- Problems often arrive as complaints from peers, customers, or management and we do not have an opportunity to reframe. We are told by someone else to solve the problem as they have framed it.
Despite all these challenges, we can and should reframe problems. If we start building the reframing habit, we can get better at it very quickly and immediately start benefiting from the rewards.
5 Steps to Rapid Reframing
Reframing is not a new idea. Scientists like Albert Einstein and Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have studied and written about its power for decades. Thomas quotes numerous research studies that prove the benefits of reframing on his HowToReframe website.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Albert Einstein
The good news is that reframing doesn’t have to be hard or time consuming. It can be implemented in as little as ten minutes by following these steps:
- Pause: Start by reflecting on your own behaviour and recognizing when you jump to solution finding. Build the habit of pausing and taking a breath when presented with a problem.
- Clarify the problem: Write the problem statement out formally and separately from the solution. Recognize that saying, “we need to increase capacity,” isn’t a problem, it’s a solution.
- Test information and assumptions: Challenge any assumptions within the problem statement. Watch for language like, “people think…” or “customers feel…” These need to be validated.
- Reframe: Write additional possible problem statements guided by questions like:
- Is this the core issue or a symptom of something else?
- What is the bigger goal? Is there a better goal to pursue?
- What might we be missing?
- How am I/we contributing to the problem?
- Who else needs to be asked for input? Do we have diverse enough viewpoints?
- Solve: Once the problem has been reframed optimally, then we can move to more well understood problem solving methods.
Great problem solvers have aggressive curiosity. They ask lots of open questions, listen carefully, and explore patterns. They map out cause-and-effect relationships imbedded in situations. All these traits help with reframing problems as well as subsequently seeking possible solutions.
Unleashing the Potential of Your Organization
Problems, issues, and challenges aren’t just part of business, they are part of everyday life. Each day we experience challenges that need our attention and need to be solved. By adding reframing to our personal and team toolkits, we can save time, money, and stress.
If you’d like to learn more about how to embed reframing into your culture, or other ways you can take the simpler path to creating a great business, connect with us or consider attending one of our upcoming leadership events.