Increase your problem-solving literacy

How can we identify our real problems?

6-minute read

We have a lot of problems in our lives right now. But there is one problem that is most insidious of all: we don’t know what our real problems are. The result? We waste countless resources (time, money, worry) attempting to solve the wrong problems.

In his new book, What’s Your Problem? author and innovation scholar, Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg points out that most of us are actually decent problem solvers. Our downfall is that we are lousy problem identifiers. We lack a skill called problem reframing

Take, for example, the case of the slow elevator. Let’s say you have a building where your tenants’ chief complaint is that the elevator needs to be faster. The solution seems obvious: replace your slow elevator with a faster one. While logical, the major drawback of this solution is that it results in a new problem: you go broke paying for a faster elevator. So what if you took the time to reframe the problem? For example:

Original problem frame: The elevator is too slow.  

Solution: Purchase a faster elevator engine.

Problem reframe: People are bored waiting for the elevator. 

New solution: Put a mirror in the lobby. People will be so enamored with their reflections, they won’t notice the wait.

The skill of problem reframing doesn’t just have the potential to save us money, it can also save lives. For example, Wedell-Wedellsborg shares the story of Lori Weise, founder of an animal rescue group that faced the chronic problem of people relinquishing their pets. 

Original problem frame: These are irresponsible owners and bad people.

Solutions: Increase barriers for adoption so people who have given up pets in the past can’t adopt again. Focus all your efforts on finding new homes for abandoned animals. 

This had been the long-held problem frame and solution set until Weise and her team did something different. When people came to drop off their animals, one of her staff members simply asked: “If you could keep your pet, would you?” And 75 percent of people said yes. With this revaluation, a reframe emerged, along with a very different solution.

Problem reframe: People who relinquish their pets often do it for financial reasons (for example lacking a deposit to give the landlord when moving into a new apartment).

New solution: Provide financial assistance to owners in need. 

Not only did this new solution help thousands of animals stay with their families and stay alive, it actually saves money. It turns out that providing financial assistance often costs less than keeping animals in the shelter system.

How do you know it’s time to reframe your problem?

One of the best indicators that your problem frame needs to be revised is when the problem becomes chronic (think: recurring arguments, repeated mistakes, seemingly unsolvable issues). In these instances, we often try the same solutions, albeit to different degrees, again and again without sustainable change. And even if you’re facing a new problem, keep in mind that the higher the stakes, the more effort you’ll want to put into identifying the right problem before putting in the effort to find a solution. It is a classic example of slowing down to speed up.

What can you do to become a better problem reframer? Here are three simple but powerful strategies:

Find boundary spanners

The toughest aspect of problem reframing is that we are usually completely unaware of the rigidity of our own thinking. This is a concept psychologist Abraham Luchins dubbed “Einstellung”: a fixed approach to problem-solving we become trapped in even when better solutions exist. 

The best way to become aware of our problem framing blindspots is simply to gather other people’s perspectives. As Wedell-Wedellsborg puts it: “The more important the problem, the more people you should talk to about it.” Who are the best people to talk to? Researchers Tushman and Scalan suggest finding “boundary spanners.” Individuals who have just enough knowledge of your problem to understand it while also bringing with them diverse perspectives and backgrounds.

Once you find your boundary spanners, the next step is not to ask them for solutions. Instead, invite them to ask you questions. For example, say: “I’d love to walk you through my problem in case there might be something I’m missing or an angle I’m not considering. What questions come to mind for you?”

Learn from bright spots

Another problem reframing tool to add to your toolkit is positive exception finding, in other words, learning from bright spots. For example, in their book Switch, authors Chip and Dan Heath describe the chronic problem of childhood malnutrition in many Vietnamese villages. For years, the problem framing had been that children were getting sick and dying because they didn’t have enough access to food and clean water. Unfortunately, this framing didn’t present accessible solutions. 

Instead, Jerry Sternin of Save the Children tried a different approach. He partnered with village mothers to examine local kids and see if they could find any bright spots who were just as poor and yet healthier than others. They did. Next, they asked: What is different about these kids?

Using this approach, Sternin and the village research team discovered some simple but life-changing differences. For example, most kids ate meals twice a day, while the healthiest kids ate the same amount of food but spread out across four meals. 

The problem reframe became a question of education rather than access to food, presenting a new and sustainable solution. The local mothers led a community education program, reaching 265 villages and leading to better nutrition in 65 percent of kids even six months later.

Expand the frame

Aside from learning from boundary spanners and bright spots, great problem reframers also expand their problem frame. As researcher Paul Nutt found, framing your problem as binary (e.g., this or that? yes or no?) reduces the likelihood that you will find a good solution. For example, asking: “Should I quit my job or not?” prevents you from spotting countless solutions that might be an even better match for your needs—like asking for a promotion, changing your responsibilities, improving your stress management skills, and so on. 

One simple way to expand your frame is to change the types of questions you ask. Through our research at LifeLabs Learning on what great managers do differently, we found that exceptional managers ask more open than closed questions. Instead of asking “should I quit my job?” (a closed yes/no question), you might ask: “what would make my work feel more fulfilling?” 

To ask more open vs. closed questions, notice the first word that starts your question. Next, convert closed question words like “do” “can” “should” “is” to open question words like “what” “how” and “who.” 

Last but not least, remember that problem-reframing and problem-solving are skills we can build. Not sure where to start? Wedell-Wedellsborg recommends treating tiny, everyday problems as your training ground. He says: “You can develop your ability to handle big problems by practicing with small problems.” In many ways, each problem life hands us is a free life lesson and another good opportunity to build our problem-solving muscles.