Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash
Think of the last time you faced a seemingly impossible problem. It could be related to a project at work. Or perhaps a struggle you’re dealing with at home during the coronavirus pandemic. It could even be something more abstract, like finding happiness in your career or relationships.
In your drive to find a solution and act, could you be confident that your decision was the best possible one? And if you happened to give up, feeling sure that this problem simply couldn’t be solved after all your analysis, is there truly no other way to figure this dilemma out?
It turns out there is a way to not only solve seemingly impossible problems at work and in life, but also get to better, more creative solutions than the ones we immediately try.
You must consider that the issue is not so much how you’re defining the solution; it’s how you’re defining the problem in the first place.
Otherwise known as “reframing,” this method is a simple yet elegant way to both solve more of the difficult challenges we face, as well as do so more quickly and creatively.
In a recent article for Forbes, I discussed the value of staying curious a little longer and resisting the urge to jump in and solve the problem you perceive. Reframing is an activity that channels this curiosity and patience into a thought process that reveals more productive solutions to the things that confound us.
For more on this concept, I reached out to my colleague and innovation thought leader, Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, who is an expert on reframing and recently wrote a fascinating book on it, called What’s Your Problem?
Thomas’s book is a fun mix of research, coaching, and enlightening cases where people used reframing to solve tough challenges in everything from business to careers to even dating and family issues.
Harvard Business Review Press
Readers will find so many intriguing examples that I won’t have space to repeat in this article, but here are three reasons for companies, leaders, and virtually all of us to begin learning the art of reframing for better solutions.
Reframing is more efficient than many traditional problem-solving frameworks. When I asked Thomas why he wrote What’s Your Problem, he told me that after moving from academic research to consulting leaders, he noticed that tools in problem-solving and innovation were becoming too nuanced and complex for busy practitioners to use.
In my executive coaching practice for C-level and VP leaders at large, global organizations, I can attest to this truth and have observed a phenomenon he describes in his writing. He shares how many companies push the practice of common problem-diagnosis frameworks like Six Sigma and informal ones like “root cause” analysis or the “Five Whys” technique, to analyze issues.
However, these models can take too long and require extensive training. They also risk going more in-depth into one problem, without recognizing that this problem may not even be the right one to solve. This perspective reminded me of creativity expert Edward de Bono’s famous quote about lateral thinking: “you cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.”
Thomas cautions against the mistake of being so focused on the first problem we notice and assuming then that the first solution we propose is the best one. And today, as we are facing an unprecedented level of uncertainty and stress, problem-solving becomes even more challenging, so there is a greater tendency to jump into addressing the first problem rather than assessing better problems to solve for better solutions.
As Thomas told me, “when a crisis like the coronavirus strikes, two things happen: one is an explosion of problems; every day, a new, urgent issue will come up.
“The second thing is that time becomes extremely scarce. Both factors combine to make the leaders’ role in solving the right problems extra important.”
Thomas designed his reframing method for use during these urgent times as it is simple enough to use in 15-minute increments rather than a “40-step process that nobody has time to follow.”
Reframing enables everyone to be innovative, regardless of intelligence. In my discussion with Thomas, he shared an interesting fact with me: that society saw the placing of wheels on suitcases in 1972, which was three years after we put a man on the moon.
We often overlook the innovative horsepower that goes into specific products and initiatives relative to the more magnificent examples. But wheels on a suitcase, as Thomas shared, “is an example of reframing; it’s a giant missing piece in our cognitive toolkit, and we’ve been blind to its absence for a long time.”
Problem-solving through simple reframing shows us that there are many more opportunities to be innovative than we think. I found this an encouraging lesson for the leaders I coach, who are tasked every day with leading their companies into the future and who often doubt their capacity to be creative while executing.
To work through any self-doubt in becoming an innovative thinker, I asked Thomas whether there is a correlation between IQ and creative problem-solving. He answered, “the good news is that you don’t have to be Einstein to be a better problem solver.
“In fact,” he continued, “the existing research on reframing shows that it’s a learnable skill, and that it’s separate from intelligence.
“In other words, you might not be someone who aced all your tests in school, but if you learn to reframe, you can still often outperform the resident genius among your colleagues. Reframing is a type of wisdom, perhaps, which is often more crucial than raw brainpower.”
Thomas also advises that reframing together with colleagues is an even more effective way of solving problems because the collective effort at surfacing everyone’s blind spots can outperform one person’s capacity for solutions.
Just make sure that each colleague understands how to reframe (rather than derailing the group’s ability to apply the concepts appropriately by jumping into solution mode). For some helpful tools to share with your colleagues and teach them about reframing, I recommend visiting his site www.howtoreframe.com.
Reframing applies to any challenge in front of you. Thomas’s work as an innovation speaker and researcher created a great deal of demand for his reframing techniques from corporations running massive product lines with enormous investments in research and development. But as he shared with me, people in his workshops use reframing for personal challenges as well, like navigating their career or making family decisions.
One example he provided of reframing as it relates to careers, had to do with answering the question we often ask ourselves: “What career should I pursue?”
The general advice to solve this problem is to “follow your passion” or “look deep inside yourself” to find your true calling. While this may valuable in theory, it’s rarely useful in practice.
A more powerful framing of the question, “What career should I pursue?” is to ask,
“What’s a real-world problem that I care enough about to dedicate the next few years to fixing?”
Another example Thomas shared with me from one of his workshops was a high-powered female executive who was trying to answer the question, “Should I have children or not?”
She wanted to have kids, but also felt it would derail her career, so she felt paralyzed by this choice. With Thomas’s reframing training, she decided to pose a different question:
“Under what conditions would I want to have kids?”
That reframing allowed her to think more clearly about the choice. It also gave her some tangible things to evaluate her decision against – including some specific goals she could work towards achieving.
A final real-world career example worth sharing, which Thomas details in What’s Your Problem?, is from the creativity researcher Robert Sternberg.
It’s about a senior executive who loves his company, but hates his boss. This executive decides to contact a headhunter who assured him that there was lots of demand; finding a new job will be easy.
After talking to his wife, however, the executive came up with a smarter solution. He returned to the headhunter and handed over his boss’s CV.
The headhunter then found a new job for the boss (who didn’t know what was going on), and the executive ended up promoted into his boss’s old position. Talk about getting the best of both worlds!
Give reframing a try. But also get out there and keep testing.
One of the questions I had for Thomas about reframing problems to find better solutions, was, “how do you know when to stop reframing and start executing?”
His advice was thoughtful and something that reflects what we’ve learned in the Lean Startup movement. He shared, “it’s not enough to just sit in a meeting with your colleagues discussing new ways to redefine the problem.
“You have to test your assumptions in the real world, making small experiments and prototyping. In the words of startup expert Steve Blank, ‘Get out of the building.’
He continued, “The input from those experiments – getting the problem validated by the real world – allows you to shift more fully into execution mode, versus trying to figure it all out in your head.”
At the same time, Thomas cautioned, “don’t go out and test without adequate reframing; otherwise you risk doing endless trial-and-error testing on the wrong problem – also known as ‘rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.'”
So, next time you face a challenge on a project at work, a dilemma at home, or even everyday frustrations (like this excellent “broken elevator” example Thomas writes about), spend a few minutes redefining the problem rather than seeking to solve it.
And don’t worry if you are reframing it “correctly,” because the power is in just being open to more possibilities in redefining it, not whether you’ve chosen the right one.
As you keep reframing and testing, you’ll come upon a more elegant set of solutions and even recognize that you are indeed more innovative than you thought you were.