Find a good frame

Find a good frame

Mar 1, 2013

Chances are, you are not solving the problem that you should.

Nothing personal, dear reader, as I wholeheartedly trust your instincts and impeccable judgment, but focusing on our perceived problem—rather than a better one—happens to the best of us.

We all focus on our perceived problem

Case in point: I’ve coached hundreds of people to solve complex problems in the past fifteen years (and solved a few of my own along the way). These projects typically start with the person summarizing their problem in a SCQ sequence. Not once have they decided, after questioning their frame for even just a few minutes, that their original problem formulation was the one they wanted to retain. Not. A. Single. Time.That’s because we instinctively think that we know which problem we should focus on but, when it comes to CIDNI problems, instinct is a terrible master. If we disengage that autopilot and start examining our problem, we find that there is a better one. Indeed, a little introspection and exposure to constructive criticism can help us see what we originally missed. So, the bottom line is this: Whatever you initially think your problem is, call that your perceived problem and assume that it's far from optimal. In other words, step 1 is: Look for a better problem.There’s a great interview with Tim Brown, the president of IDEO from a few years back. IDEO, if you aren’t familiar with them, is a design and innovation consultancy responsible for many breakthrough products, including the original Apple mouse. The founders, David and Tom Kelley, have a lot of materials out there, including books and TEDTalks so you can easily learn more about how they work. There’s also a famous ABC piece—although quite dated now—on IDEO's design process used to create a new shopping cart flying around YouTube.

Anyway, Tim Brown has some great insights about problem framing. First, about the challenge that is to find a better problem:

It’s very easy in business to get sucked into being reactive to the problems and questions that are right in front of you. And it doesn’t matter how creative you are as a leader, it doesn’t matter how good the answers you come up with. If you’re focusing on the wrong questions, you’re not really providing the leadership you should.

I'm not as dogmatic as Tim in calling a problem frame "wrong" or "right." Indeed, because most of our stressful problems are ill-defined, they are subjective and the notion of "right" and "wrong" doesn't fit them well. But the point remains: Focusing on what we originally perceive as the problem is suboptimal. Instead, we should first identify a better problem.

Learn to identify a better problem

Solving CIDNI problems is, arguably, as much an art as a science, so one size doesn't fit all. But here's a way to get you started in progressing from your perceived problem to a better one:

  1. Take your best shot at developing a key question.

  2. Develop five alternative ones.

  3. Compare all six. Where do they differ? What answering one would imply, compared to answering another? Which one(s) are too broad, too narrow, on the wrong subject?

  4. Select the best candidate (which might be a hybrid), capture your reasoning as to why it is best, and build the rest of the SCQ sequence: your situation and complication. Now you have a self-contained capsule that you can submit to others.

  5. Next, find someone you can present that sequence to and ask their point of view. This is the hard part (at least for me)! You need to be open minded and humble. Do not react defensively. Take it all in. The more diverse the point of view your partner has, the higher quality their contribution. But they won’t agree with your original idea, and that’s great. That’s what you want.

  6. Talk it over, always focusing the discussion towards understanding the differences: How do candidate questions differ and what are the implications for each?

It’s messy. It’s tough. It feels unproductive. But it is absolutely essential. So get on with it!


Brown, T. (2008). “Design thinking.” Harvard business review 
86(6): 84.Fischhoff, B. and C. Chauvin (2011). Intelligence analysis: Behavioral and social scientific foundations, National Academies Press.

Photo credit: Pixabay