Re-framing problems can lead to better range of solutions for your company

Much depends on ability to question beliefs and challenge assumptions says Wedell-Wedellsborg

Danish innovation expert and author Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg.

Danish innovation expert and author Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg.


When approaching business problems, the natural inclination of many is to jump in quickly with a solution. We are often better off, however, if we take a step back first and try to re-frame the problem before considering a range of possible solutions. This tends to result in a better outcome, according to Danish innovation expert and author Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg.

“Solving tough problems isn’t always about the details and being a good systems thinker. It can equally be about interpretation and making sense, about seeing what’s already there but rethinking what it means. Much depends on our own ability to question our own beliefs and to challenge assumptions that we may have held on to for a long time about our colleagues, our customers, our friends and family and not least, ourselves,” he says.

Wedell-Wedellsborg’s research and thinking is encapsulated in his latest book, What’s Your Problem? It distils psychology and research on problem solving with insights from his own work with corporations across the globe.

Poor decision-making is a major problem, he says, citing his own research amongst 106 C-suite executives in 17 countries. Some 85 per cent of these said that their organisations were not good at re-framing with most saying their firms were wasting significant resources because of this.

The World Economic Forum in a report on skills needs has identified complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity as being among the most important attributes now required in the market, underlining how important this issue is, he adds.

His book features stories to illustrate his points. A classic is the slow elevator problem. Here, a tenant in an office building complains to his landlord about the speed of the lift. Conventional thinking might focus on a mechanical solution to make the lift speed up. Not so fast, says the Dane. The problem may not be about speed but about perception or something else entirely.

One solution might to install mirrors to provide users with an interesting distraction to focus on – their own beautiful reflection. Peak time excess use might be an issue which could be addressed by staggering lunchbreaks, for example. Alternatively, it could even be a ploy to get the landlord to reduce the rent. In any case, step back and think about the problem more roundly before charging in, is his message.

Reframing works well because it throws up multiple potential perspectives on how to view problems and Wedell-Wedellsborg says that research shows that considering several options ultimately yields better solutions and outcomes.

The popular notion of trusting your gut is one he thinks that should not always be followed.

“Your intuition is your body’s accumulated experience of the past which is not always a good guide to solving future challenges. Intuition works in two situations: if it a choice that you have had to make many times in the past or if it is in a predictable environment where you get clear feedback. Golf is a great example.

“However, in many situations, you can feel something very strongly and still be very wrong. Intuition doesn’t work so well in an area such as recruitment, for example, where there are a range of complicating factors and the feedback is delayed so generally people are not intuitively good at hiring.”

Getting comfortable with uncertainty is a challenge, especially for those who appear to have a fixed mindset and the author suggests those of this disposition might work on their mental agility.

He cautions, however, against viewing others as being intransigent, lazy or stupid. Consider the wider picture, he says. It could be that the person has a natural bias for action approach that looks for quick or seemingly obvious solutions or has had bad experience of paralysis by analysis and favours decisiveness. “You might react by saying look, we are just going to look at the issue for 15 minutes to see if there’s something else going on that we have not considered.”

Another story from the book illustrates the importance of not rushing to judgement and smart re-framing.

Lori Weise, executive director of Downtown Dog Rescue in LA tackled the problem of homing dogs not by adoption but by working with those who were surrendering dogs. In many cases these were not “bad” owners and poverty was the key reason for not being able to keep their pets. By providing practical assistance to these owners, many of them were able to keep their pets at a lower cost than surrender and rehoming.

Breaking down massive problems into more manageable ones is another problem the author addresses. Nobody can solve the issue of climate change on their own or can change the culture of their organisations to make it innovative.

“Think instead of your team of five or six people. What changes can you make there? You need to be realistic or else you risk trying to boil the ocean and fatalism will quickly set in.”

A form of reframing is classically used by start-ups, with the lean movement’s Steve Blank’s exhortation to “get out of the building” and test the hypothesis providing a perfect example of the approach innovators should take, he maintains. This should be done as rapidly as possible.

“On a Monday morning you’ll have of set of working assumptions, so spend the week testing these in the market and revisit the problem on Friday afternoon and ask whether given what we have learned, is there any fresh insights here to move the hypothesis forward.”

The response of various Governments to the Covid-19 situation has illustrated both good and bad framing, he notes. Framing the response to the pandemic in terms of flattening the curve was an authentic and effective way of communicating the goal of minimising the worst effects of the pandemic so that emergency departments were not over-run and the situation remained manageable. The public health advice in some countries during the early stages of the pandemic about not wearing face-masks, by contrast, was disingenuous.

“In a crisis, you need to think not only about solving immediate problems, but also about maintaining trust and you lose your authority if you are not straight with people. The assumption here was that everyone would be out for themselves only and that there wouldn’t be enough masks for healthcare workers. Research shows that people are in fact social creatures and most want to help others. Better advice would have been to suggest to people that, if they had spare masks, they could help by donating them to their local hospital.”

Better approaches to problem-solving

Develop a learning mindset: the author notes that too often we start conversations with the aim of telling. Instead, we should consciously decide to approach the other person with an intent to listen and learn. Observe our talking-to-listening ratio, he says.

Create a safe space: As Amy Edmonson’s work on psychological safety shows, learning conversations are less effective if people fear recrimination or otherwise feel that they cannot speak freely. Find ways to de-risk the conversation or consider involving a third party.

Seek out discomfort: You should be prepared to discover potentially painful truths about yourself. Do you seek feedback from those who are most likely to tell you the truth rather than just what you want to hear? Many leading business figures credit part of their success to an ability to get out of their comfort zone

Broadcast the problem: Involve a much wider group in addressing the problem. Some large corporates have found very cost effective solutions to major problems, often by offering a prize as an incentive.

What’s your problem? To solve your toughest problems, change the problems you solve by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg is published by Harvard Business Review Press

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.