How To Frame A Problem To Find The Right Solution

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painted light bulb with word idea and colored blank notes on cork board photo credit: Getty


‘If I have an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution’ (Albert Einstein)

Are we sure we are working on the right problem? Are we really capturing the essence of it? Do we have all the background information we need to understand it fully? Do we all understand the problem the same way?

The truth is that you will seek what you set yourself up to seek and you will find what you set yourself up to find. This is why framing is so sturdy. Making an effort to examine the potential challenge as to understand it fully in its essence and implications is time well-spent.

Spending time consciously defining a problem is vital for successful change. Without the proper framing, there is no certainty about the appropriate focus on the right issue. How a problem is framed or described can determine the kinds of options considered to address the problem, stakeholders’ perceptions of its importance and the achievement of the desired solution.

Answering to the right problem in the right way thus depends 95% on the correct framing of it. Whether you are a top business manager or a leader boy scout dealing with a crazy team of pre-adolescent kids, these are top 10 tips that will ensure successful decision-making when dealing with problem-solving.

1. The 40-20-10-5 rule

Concision in framing will many times be the answer to the right solution. For all those problems that are difficult to define quickly, you can apply this rule that goes through 4 basic steps. State your problem in 40 words. Cut it down to 20, then to 10 and end up with a 5 words problem statement. If you can not keep it simple, probably you have not reached the roots of it yet.

2. Research and collect information

We can not correctly address what we do not understand, and we can not understand an issue if we are not aware of its context, implications and possible consequences. Trying to solve a problem without all in-depth background information is like learning to write without knowing the alphabet. Take time to research on the nature of the problem, the importance, and urgency of it, its tendency or frequency to occur and every single one of the stakeholders involved in it.

3.  Rephrase and Focus

 “Are you sure we are solving the right problem? How do we know this is the right issue?

Take some time out to potentially reframe the problem. If after this exercise, the problem does not change, you will have confirmed that nature of the problem. However 50% of the time you will end up reframing the issue in a much more strategic way that will significantly improve the success of your solution.

First, rephrase. Then, Focus. Imagine that your problem has a timeline and project yourself in the time before the problem appeared. Focusing on the future from this perspective will help you to determine the longer-term effects of it.

4. Challenge Assumptions

In the context of behavioral economicsFraming surrounds the mental picture we have of the world—and is the paradigm through which we perceive reality. This means that even if we are not aware of “our frame,” it encompasses all of our unconscious assumptions during decision-making. When framing a problem, we need to ask ourselves what do we know to be true and what and how much have we assumed to be true.

5. Broaden and narrow the view

Broaden your view of the problem. By questioning the more significant reasons for doing something we may discover that the roots of a problem are far beyond the level we were digging in. Narrow also your focus to make sure that your-wide ranging problem is not finally responding to a very tiny and specific cause.

6. Change the perspective

Observe the problem for above as if you would be totally external to it. Think about how a problem has been framed meaning viewing the problem from different perspectives and identifying ways in which the problem could be packaged. Give your problem to others. Analyze it from the perspectives of all stakeholders involved. Gain always some fresh insides to it before getting into finding the solution.

7. Frame questions, not statements

Questions open up the framework to new streams of thoughts. Statements reduce the views to the simplistic negative assumption that things are not going well.  ‘Our marriage is suffering’ is a demoralizing statement. ‘How can we make our marriage be great again’ is a question opening the door to successful problem-solving.

8. Use always positive language

The kind of words we choose to use can literary change our brain.Positive words are known to engage the brain center responsible for understanding the big picture, respect, active listening, empathy, and problem-solving, while negative words activate the fear center. Using positive language to frame a problem has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate emotional and physical stress and thus, ease the process of finding the right answer and predispose successful decision-making.

9. Become a problem-maker

Still not able to find the solution? Turn it on its head and instead try to focus on how to create the problem. Creativity always comes from addressing an issue from a different angle or perspective.

10. Use the SCAMPER rule

Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify (magnify or minify), Put to other uses, Eliminate and Rearrange (reverse). This complete checklist will help you to think creatively when addressing any problem-solving process.

And remember that ‘we can not solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’ and that ‘a problem is always a chance for you to do better’.