5 Tips for Effective Problem Framing

In framing a problem we set the psychological parameters against which we endeavor to solve the problem.  A mis-framed problem will have mis-framed solutions.  Sometimes those mis-framed solutions will address symptoms, but they will not resolve the core challenge. In many cases the mis-framed fix actually makes the problem worse. 

Alex wanted help fixing his management team and claimed that he was having a hard time because his business was struggling.  As we reviewed the issues I reflected on our working session with the management team. What appeared to be more true is that Alex was mis-framing the problem.  A more accurate representation of the situation is that the business was struggling because Alex was struggling.

Alex had taken the business a long way since taking over from his father 23 years earlier.  He grew the business from just under $1M in annual revenue to more than $37M during that period.  But, growth had been stalled for nearly 4 years and he was getting pressure from the bank about covenants that were in danger of being breached for a third straight year.

The management team’s chief complaint was that Alex seemed to be chasing every bright idea that entered his head.  His sales director referred to him as a squirrel chasing bright shiny objects. He was great at inspiring people and casting a vision for the future that generated momentum, but he didn’t seem to have the patience for reality testing assumptions or building testable scenarios before driving the organization to chase a particular course of action. 

Both Alex and the management team recognized the business was not reaching its goals, but they framed the problem very differently.  The management team believed that Alex was the problem. Alex believed the management team was the problem. Each had a certain perspective, but neither saw the whole system.  Where the problem lies may seem like an insignificant nuance, but it is actually quite profound.

Over the course of 3 working sessions Alex and his team gained insights about how his leadership habits, the management team practices, combined with a rapidly shifting market environment, and gaps in essential skills at both the supervisor and management team level was contributing to the challenges.  In short, both the organizational capacity and Alex’s leadership approach had to be addressed.  By the end of the working session they had a correctly framed problem: “we lack necessary organizational clarity and capacity for achieving our mission and vision”. The correctly framed problem allowed them to overcome cognitive biases and faulty mental models to collaborate more effectively in finding fundamental solutions.

5 Tips for Effective Problem Framing:

  1. Systems thinking: instead of jumping to cause-effect conclusions it is important to look at the issue from all angles.  Rushing to conclusions without thoroughly exploring the symptoms to find the root cause leads more often than not to fixes that fail or to unintended consequences. (See: Peter Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline: The art and science of the learning organization” for more on this topic)
  2. Conflict: engaging in productive conflict with a trusted team provides the robust opportunity to challenge assumptions, build testable scenarios, and root out cognitive biases that could otherwise derail success. Done well conflict leads to well-framed problems and exposes solutions that get results. (See: Patrick Lencioni’s “The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.“)
  3. Process: ensure the management team has a process for making decisions that involves the right people providing insight and vetting details prior to taking action.  Once the process is in place be very cautious about skipping it. (See: Peter Drucker “Effective Decisions” in the Harvard Business Review)
  4. Strategy: the core of an effective strategy is a clear definition of the problem and the solution that is supported by a limited set of decision-making principles and a coherent set of coordinated actions.  (See Richard Rummelt’s “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy the Difference and Why it Matters.”)
  5. Performance measures: ensure that upstream and downstream performance indicators or success measures are identified and feedback loops are created so that the strategy can be adjusted if necessary.  (See Kaplan and Norton: “Putting the Balanced Scorecard to Work.”)