If you are stuck, reframe!

03 April, 2017

Are you solving the right problem? Reframing should be an essential part of your problem-diagnosis toolkit

I have been reading HBS professor Bharat Anand’s highly acclaimed book, The Content Trap, on digital transformation. One of the fascinating examples that Prof. Anand talks about is the impact of digital on the newspaper industry. The conventional view is that print newspapers seem to be a dying breed because readers are migrating online to read news. However, Prof. Anand shows that the drop in readership can’t be underpinned on digital alternatives; that has been underway for over six decades. The real reason for the newspaper industry malaise actually lies elsewhere – it has been due to the significant decline of classified advertising. Unfortunately, many newspapers have been trying to solve the wrong problem.

Knowing the right problem to solve is critical. 

Several years ago, our team observed that in spite of the high incidence of mosquito borne diseases in India, the penetration of home insecticides was extremely low. Most of the products in the markets were focused on propositions centred on killing mosquitos. As our team dug deeper, they found that mosquitos were viewed as a nuisance more than anything else. Consumers were looking for products that would enable them to sleep safely, without the annoyance of mosquitos through the night. The team ended up reframing the problem and launched a series of innovative products under the Goodknight brand that focused on protecting consumers and ensuring that they got a “good night’s” sleep. Goodknight is now by far, the leading brand in home insecticides.

All too often, we go straight to solution mode, paying little attention to the problem itself. Instead of asking pertinent questions and identifying the nature of the issue, we roll up our sleeves impatiently and say, “Okay we all understand the problem, now what are we going to do about it?”

The fact is, in many cases, we actually don’t understand the problem—we just think we do, based on our assumptions. In a recent survey of corporates across 17 countries, 85 per cent of top leaders agreed that their companies were failing at problem diagnosis and that this inefficiency was seriously impacting them.

So, drawing from this, my message this week focuses on how we can use reframing to approach problems differently, spark new insights, and hopefully find better solutions. 

Author, Marianne Williamson, said it well, “Our key to transforming anything lies in our ability to reframe it”.

Here are some suggestions that you may find helpful:

1. “Frame-storm” the problem

Before you start brainstorming solutions, try frame-storming the problem. Simply phrasing it in different ways can help you change the focus. Like Tina Seelig, professor of innovation at Stanford University, points out: “What is the sum of 5 plus 5?” could also be phrased as “Which two numbers add up to 10?”. While the first question has only one correct answer, the second has an endless number of right answers. You also need to ask yourself what kind of problem is it? Is it a problem of usability? Money? Perception? Emotion? What lies at the heart of the matter?

Effective frame-storming can turn an issue on its head—what seems obvious at the beginning might be totally dismantled by the end. In a Harvard Business Review article, Are You Solving the Right Problems?, Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg shares the example of Nickelodeon’s new app for children: While lots of kids downloaded the app, the numbers dropped sharply during the sign-up process. The team decided that the sign-up process was obviously too complex and time-consuming, and put in all efforts to simplify each step. But nothing worked. Eventually they went back to the drawing board and, upon reframing the problem, found that it wasn’t a problem of usability—but one of feeling. When the children were asked for their cable password during the sign-up process, they immediately felt like they would get into trouble with their parents—it was at this point that they abandoned the app. So, Nickelodeon added a brief video explaining that it was fine to ask parents for the password, leading to a ten-fold growth in sign-ups.

2. Create space for alternative views

One way to kickstart the reframing process is to ask everyone in the team to email you a few bullet points about what they feel is the root cause, before you have a meeting to discuss the issue. Write these points down on a flip-chart—now, you have a starting point for your discussion. Not everyone feels comfortable sharing their opinion if the group narrative is tilting another way. This could ensure that each idea has a place on the board and is discussed on its merits alone. Plus, something as simple as seeing the same problem described in different words can spark new perspectives.

In these discussions, it’s important to go beyond the obvious. Don’t shoot down suggestions or questions that seem over the top or improbable to you; these are a part of out-of-the-box thinking and creative reframing. Seelig actually recommends that you occasionally challenge your team to come up with terrible ideas—this takes the pressure off always having to come up with great ideas right away. Plus, a “bad” idea can (with a few tweaks) occasionally become a brilliant idea!

3. Introduce an outside perspective

To shake things up and challenge your team’s preconceived notions, add a fresh perspective to the mix. Sometimes, it’s important to step outside the predictable pool of “experts”. Choose people who are familiar with the issues at hand, but offer different perspectives. So, if you’re working on what seems like a money problem, don’t just restrict your discussion group to senior finance team members. Bring in younger people or even members from other departments to ask questions and challenge the notions of your finance team. Remember, they are not there to offer solutions—their role is to force you and your team to re-examine what you think you know.

4. Ask the right questions

Knowing the goal goes a long way in arriving at the most effective solution. Stanford University professor, Michael Barry uses this great example in his needs-finding class:

If I asked you to build a bridge for me, you could go off and build a bridge. Or you could come back to me with another question: “Why do you need a bridge?” I would likely tell you that I need a bridge to get to the other side of a river. Aha! This response opens up the frame of possible solutions. There are clearly many ways to get across a river besides using a bridge. You could dig a tunnel, take a ferry, paddle a canoe, use a zip line, or fly a hot-air balloon, to name a few.

This is where the power of “why?” comes in handy—ask this question until you can arrive at the core objective that needs to be fulfilled. Once this is clear, you might just see the problem in a whole new light.

Jason Dorsey, in his article Reframe Problems with These 5 Questions, suggests asking yourself these questions before you get started on actioning solutions:

  • What am I actually trying to achieve by solving this problem?
  • What constraints have I self-imposed on solving this problem? Are they real? What happens when I remove each of them individually or altogether?
  • How can I break the big problem into five smaller ones?
  • What if I don’t fix this problem and choose to just move on?
  • What if I’m the problem? (This is a tough one…) 

5. Change your environment

Your surroundings can impact the way you think. Shake these up, and your perspective shifts. In his TED Talk, Weird, or Just Different?, Derek Sivers (founder of CD Baby), talks about how many of our beliefs are actually localised and arbitrary. And we don’t need to go all the way to a different country to achieve this shift in perspective—even a visit to an unfamiliar neighbourhood or a conversation with a toddler can open up new ways of thinking about a problem.

The same goes for understanding consumers. If you’re trying to look at an issue from their angle, don’t waste endless hours in your office trying to put yourself in their shoes when a better solution is easily available. Head to the market, talk to people who are interacting with them daily, and observe the interactions. Data and models can take you a long way but to reframe the problem, you need something more—to be in the right context.

So, get your team (and yourself!) to identify the right problem you are trying to solve. And if you are stuck, perhaps you need to reframe?

As Albert Einstein once said:

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.

I look forward to your thoughts.


  • Sunita Devrani says:

    Great thought on Monday morning – Rephrase & reframe… Thanks!

  • Jaimala says:

    Great article, it happens so many times to us at work, at home that we struggle with a problem without really looking at what is it that is the problem. Loved the approach proposed, time to reframe!

  • Bimal says:

    Vivekji –
    I work in the software field and this is the exact same thing we discussed today morning. We are trying to derive actionable mechanisms to think in different perspectives. Your inputs help, as always. Thank you!

  • Saurabh Jhawar says:

    This is indeed very true. Really liked the concept of frame-storming.

  • Dheeraj Goyal says:

    Amazing practical insights!

  • shwet sharvary says:

    Very interesting article, Vivek. Thanks for sharing. The Design Thinking process also emphasises on the above key points. Most of the time, we are very close to the problem. But when we wear a problem solver’s hat, we need to see the context with a fresh perspective and need to re-frame. A common example of re-framing is ‘why design a chair’ when you can design ‘something to sit on’. One of the methods of getting to the right problem is asking 5 WHYs.

    The website http://reframe.thnk.org/ explains why reframing is important and provides some very interesting examples. We can practice it to be more innovative and creative problem solvers.

  • Archita says:

    A very interesting read especially because of the very relevant examples. I think this is my favourite post till now, and thank you for sharing.


Join the 8AM conversation