1. Define the problem.

Frame it right

Chances are, you are solving the wrong problem.

Nothing personal, dear reader, as I wholeheartedly trust your instincts and impeccable judgement, but it happens to the best of us.

We all solve the wrong problem

Case in point: I’ve coached over 200 people to solve complex problems in the past five years. Not a single one decided, after thinking for a couple of weeks about the problem they brought, that their original formulation was the right one. Not one.

That’s because introspection and exposure to constructive criticism will help us see what we originally missed.

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. 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 the design process for a shopping cart flying around YouTube.

Anyway, Tim Brown has some great insights about problem framing. First, about the challenge that is focusing on the right problem:

As a designer, I’m always looking for solutions to the problems I see in front of me. And the big trick to being a successful designer is always making sure you’re asking the right questions and focusing on the right problems.

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.

Then, he talks about the importance of asking the right questions:

If you don’t ask the right questions, , then you’re never going get to the right solution. I spent too much of my career feeling like I’d done a really good job answering the wrong question. And that was because I was letting other people give me the question. One of the things that I’ve tried to do more and more — and I obviously have the opportunity to do as a leader — is to take ownership of the question. And so I’m much more interested these days in having debates about what the questions should be than I necessarily am about the solutions.

Learn to identify the right key question

  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 introductory flow: your situation and complication. Now you have a self-contained capsule that you submit to others.
  5. Next, find someone you can present that capsule 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.

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