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The Cost of Improperly Framing a Problem

“You aren’t listening to me!" my four-year-old declares with a stomp.

“I’m listening to you,” I tell her, “I’m just not doing what you want.” We have this conversation at least once a week, usually when she wants sweets or absolutely needs just one more thing before bed.

At four, my daughter hasn’t learned to properly frame a problem. She thinks the issue is that I’m not listening, so she repeats herself. If she understood the actual problem is that I’m not properly motivated to let her stay up for one more minute, then she might instead say, “Mommy, if I don’t go get that doll, then I will have bad dreams and wake up crying.” I might decide that 30 more seconds now would be better than risking a middle-of-the-night wake-up scream.

Most of us aren’t much better at framing a problem at 40 than we were at 4. According to Harvard Business Review, 85% of executives report that their organizations are bad at problem diagnosis. This is itself a problem.

Think about the challenges businesses face trying to grow despite workforce shortages. Leaders could frame the problem several ways:

  1. We don’t have enough employees

  2. Employees can’t keep up with the opportunities

  3. Revenue is flat

Each of these framings would lead to focusing on different solutions. Not having enough employees would focus the business on recruiting efforts. They may pay for open position listings, attend college job fairs, or revamp their website’s careers page. If, on the other hand, the problem is that employees can’t keep up with growth opportunities, then they may decide to consult a process improvement expert or invest in efficiency increasing technology. Finally, if they decide the problem is about flat revenue, they might change their pricing structure, update product or service offerings, or focus on attracting different clients.

So, why are we bad at framing problems? Because we don’t like to think about problems. Human beings are predisposed to action; that is never clearer than when we are faced with a problem. We see this in beautiful ways when we pull together to help one another in the face of a tragedy, as when more than $600,000 was raised in two days to support victims of the Waukesha Christmas Parade. We also see this in harmful ways when frustration explodes into riots that harm the innocent. This predisposition also means we haven’t built the problem-solving “muscles” in our brain. As a result, we tire from it easily and stop before we should – but with practice we can get better.

Framing isn’t about finding “the real problem.” It’s about identifying which of the real problems you should solve. Before you dive into solutions, frame the issue 3-4 different ways. When I first contemplate a problem, I imagine a Rubik’s cube. If you’ve ever watched someone work on this puzzle, you’ve seen how they constantly turn the cube in their hands to study it from different angles. Do this with your problems. How would your customer or employee view the issue? What about HR or accounting? Ask yourself why the problem is a problem. What is it preventing you from doing? And never frame the problem in a way that suggests the answer. That’s a solution masquerading as a problem.

Also consider getting an outside perspective. When I started working at an auto and home insurance company, I didn’t have any industry experience. This lack of industry experience is what allowed me to see past the assumptions being made about one problem and think outside the box. It had been framed as “We can’t hire enough field adjusters because salaries aren’t high enough.” They assumed this was the problem because adding field adjusters to avoid using vendors had always been the industry’s means of minimizing costs. If we had continued with that problem statement, we would have increased pay rates, hired a dozen more adjusters, and still not gotten the results we wanted.

However, I proposed we re-frame the question two more ways: 1) Field Adjusters can’t complete enough estimates and 2) We’re spending too much money on vendors who complete estimates. These re-framings allowed us to realize our adjusters weren’t ideally located to efficiently respond, and our vendor offered a lower cost option that fit our needs.

Taking just a few minutes to re-frame a problem can prevent you from wasting time, money, and energy on ineffective or expensive solutions. How can you apply this approach to problem solving in your business?

Written by Michelle Duncan, SSBB, CSM


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