The importance of framing a problem correctly

Posted on January 1, 2011 by

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Asking the right questions and framing problems carefully is an important part of project definition and organizational change.  Often organizations frame problems in a way which constricts or constrains potential solutions, and this can lead to a poor outcome or the wrong tactics being employed. Spending time consciously defining a problem can pay dividends in the long run and can increase the likelihood of successful change.

Idea : Lightbulb in hands

How a problem is defined will affect how it is solved

Take a theoretical example: Many companies conduct staff engagement or satisfaction surveys. These surveys are designed to measure how engaged, satisfied or motivated their employees are. If an organization has “bad” results on its staff survey, leaders and managers are likely to want corrective action to be taken. After all, nobody wants unmotivated employees.

The first step to addressing the issue is to define and frame the problem. Often this framing process happens unconsciously, but it is significant as it impacts the way that people interpret and respond to it.

The two questions below are ways of framing the problem described above. These two questions look similar on the surface, but they are actually incredibly different:

1. “How can we improve the staff survey results?”

2. “How can we make this a great place to work?”

In my experience, organizations ask question 1, which focuses on the symptoms. In the staff survey example above this might involve identifying key themes, and perhaps corporate communication is one of them. The organization responds by starting newsletters, having “open door management” policies, but the culture doesn’t really change.  The executive team look at the metrics “How can we move from 10% on the satisfaction scale to 15%?”. They apply palliative measures, and the root cause is never even investigated, let alone resolved. The objective becomes about improving the figures not improving the organization.

Organizations really need to ask question 2.  They need to investigate the systemic cause of the issue – accepting that the symptoms might only be the tip of the iceberg. This might require a change in the organizational culture and will certainly require observing the organization as a complete system. Question 2 opens a can of worms. It requires stepping back from the metrics, and that’s an uncomfortable thing to do.

This is just one (albeit complex) example.  Problems are defined and framed every day in organizations – perhaps in an operational context, or perhaps in a project context.  Thoughtful and robust problem definition and framing change the way people think about the problem, and open up new solutions.  As change practitioners, we should encourage and facilitate this kind of thinking – asking challenging questions can be incredibly valuable!

How do you go about defining and framing problems?  I’d love to hear from you- please feel free to contact me directly or add a comment to this post.


About the author : Adrian Reed is a UK based Business Analyst, author, speaker and qualified practitioner of change. If you enjoyed this article, you can follow Adrian on Twitter or read his personal blog.