January 2, 2013

Frame your problem

Framing your problem correctly is of paramount importance, and yet, it is easy to focus on a wrong problem. Here are some guidelines to stay on the right target.

Think about a painting; the frame is a critical part of it, because it delimits what is part of the art piece and what is part of the outside world. Placing that limit might be difficult for the artist but it’s an essential part of the art piece. The same goes for solving problems. (Following that analogy, I’ll use ‘define’ and ‘frame’ interchangeably.)

Problem framing is essential

I’ve been teaching complex problem solving for over five years, during which I’ve coached hundreds of people. I can’t remember a single instance where someone’s initial definition of their problem was—once they closely inspected it—the one they decided was the right one. Not once. Yet most were fairly confident that their original formulation was what they really wanted. This isn’t speaking ill of my students—most are outstandingly bright—but rather I think this has to do with a cognitive dissonance that we all suffer from. I’m not the only one recognizing this as an issue. For instance, the Yale School of Management has a course on problem framing in its curriculum.

To some extent, I’d argue that we are all guilty of coming to a situation and jumping too quickly to thinking we have it figured out and formulating the key question we want to work with. But problem framing is an example of a situation where we don’t know that we don’t know, and it is difficult because complex problems usually are what Rittel and Webber call wicked problems: you don’t find out what the problem truly is until you are one-third of the way through its resolution.

We tend to rush through problem framing because, well, it isn’t really problem solving: “let’s get down to finding solutions”, our impatient selves go, “and quit wasting time on this”. But embarking into problem solving without proper problem framing is like driving between two unfamiliar locations without checking out the map first: we think we might get it right—and, indeed, we might—but chances are, we won’t. And the cost of doing it wrong is high; so maybe construction is a better analogy: framing the problem is like deciding where to build your new house. It’s important because once you’ve built your building, you can’t change its location (an example of a problem with a high cost of failure).

Adopt a way that works for you

I haven’t found a method that is commonly accepted as the right way to frame problems, so here is a suggestion:

1. Gather preliminary information about your problem and write various introductory statements {situation – complication – key question}. Compare them. How do they differ? Are there others that you should consider?

2. Choose the best one. Which one is the most relevant and why? How can it be improved still? Can you justify every single word in that statement?

3. Share that introductory statement with others. Discuss it. Challenge it. Showing it to others will expose you to different perspectives. Integrate these and refine your statement—or not. You don’t have to be sure that your statement is the right one, but you should be confident that, based on the information at hand at this time, it is the best you can do.

4. Diagnose your problem based on that introductory statement. Remain prepared to change your key question if the evidence you gather points to another, more important problem to solve.

5. Continuously step back to see that big picture. As evidence surfaces, you will probably face the tradeoff of continuously improving your problem statement versus complying with logistical constraints (delivery time, money). You should decide whether to integrate these changes in that light—realizing that the longer you wait to make a change, the more ‘expensive’ it is—and I’d recommend you document your choices so that you can be accountable to others but, more importantly, to yourself.

The key is to start with little confidence in your problem statement and to let it increase as evidence indicate that you should. So keep the big picture in mind through metacognition and remember, it isn’t about being able to say at the end ‘I was right from the beginning’.

Want to learn more? Check out our slide decks on problem solving.