Reframe the problem

Aug 17, 2015

It turns out our parents were right. There really is more than one way of looking at a problem.  

Once someone perceives a problem in a certain way, it can be very difficult to see the problem in any other way. Past experiences and past brain patterns cause us to lock into a mode of thought. The expression “if all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” comes to mind.

Sam Kaner says that when tackling difficult problems most people reach conclusions quickly and are confident they have explored every solution option. Their expertise, past experience and frame of mind suggest that looking for alternatives is pointless and a waste of time (see a previous article “All fun is not Superficial for a small discussion on the corresponding brain activity)”. The idea that a problem can be reframed, that it can be considered from a different perspective and therefore dramatically shift their understanding is a significant shift for many people. It’s not a place they go to easily. 

A recent experience comes to mind that really illustrated this concept. A colleague was discussing an upcoming facilitation which was complex and looked difficult. They were being asked to look for cost reductions in a project that was well underway. We circled around the topic for a period of time, wrestling with the negative scenario, speculating on the level of automatic resistance that we would encounter. 

After a time, it was suggested that we re-frame the problem. Could we find another way we could look at this issue? Our thinking quickly shifted from the more negative ‘cost reduction’ to a more positive ‘project performance’ mode and the approach to the facilitation quickly emerged. I was reminded of the real value that comes from re-framing.

On a simplistic level., ‘our product won’t sell’ can be reframed as ‘we’re trying to sell our product to the wrong people’,  or ‘our employees are incompetent’ to ‘our employees don’t have enough time to do a quality job’, or ‘we don’t have enough money’ to ‘we haven’t figured out how to find new sources of money’. We instinctively do this when we’re trying to mediate between two people, kids, colleagues or employees.

So, if you find yourself stuck on a problem statement, and working with a group, consider the following steps: 

  1. State the perceived problem.  
  2. Brainstorm a list of ‘reframes’ of the problem.
  3. Discuss the implications of the possible reframed statements
  4. Decide on your next step 

You may be pleasantly surprised to discover that an alternative approach, option or solution is more evident than originally thought. 

For a more detailed discussion, check out The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making by Sam Kaner.