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Struggling to Solve a Problem? Try Reframing It

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Experts in problem solving emphasize the importance of deeply understanding the problem before implementing countermeasures. And many cite Charles Kettering’s maxim that “A problem well-framed is a problem half-solved.” But what, precisely, is a “well-framed” problem? I’ve written before about some of the obvious errors to avoid — couching a solution in the form of a problem, and relying on generalities instead of specifics.

However, if you’re still struggling to generate effective solutions, you might change the way you’ve phrased it. Word choice matters. Specifically, you need to pay careful attention to how you phrase the subject of the problem statement, and the way you’re measuring the problem.

Full disclosure: as a college English major and former high school English teacher, I’m predisposed to focus on the power of language. But this isn’t just a matter of quibbling over semantics. These two considerations will set the trajectory of how you solve the problem. A small change in subject or measurement can lead you to an entirely different set of countermeasures, just as a small change in angle will send a satellite hurtling into outer space instead of useful orbit.

What’s the subject?

The leaders at a company I’ve worked with have long been frustrated by their lack of progress in creating a culture of continuous improvement. Many employees participate in the company’s Six Sigma green belt program and complete one project, but only about 1% of them do a second project for a yellow belt.

So how should the company’s leaders frame the problem? Consider these three problem statements:

  1. Only 1% of our green belts go on to do a second project.
  2. Our managers don’t nurture a culture of continuous improvement.
  3. Our company only completes 10 yellow/black belt projects each year.

All three capture the same basic issue affecting the company — it’s not getting as many improvement projects as the leadership team wants, but the phrasing of each makes an important difference in how you approach the problem.

The first problem statement puts the focus on the green belt employees. We look at their motivations and their choices. The second problem statement puts the focus on the managers. It causes us to look into how managers decide what needs to be done in their areas. The third considers on the company as a whole — what’s assigned a high priority, how resources are allocated, and what kind of work is recognized and rewarded.

The shift in focus leads to different kinds of countermeasures. If you focus on the employees, for example, you might change the performance evaluation and compensation system to encourage them to take on more projects. If you focus on the managers, you might coach them on the need to provide time for their team to take on additional work not directly related to their core responsibilities. If you focus on the company, we’d likely get the CEO to reconsider how much time she expects employees to spend on improvement, develop a KPI to support project completion, and increase the visibility and esteem of successful project completion.

How do you measure the problem?

Let’s say the problem you’re dealing with is similar to the example above: your business isn’t innovating enough. Here are three possible ways to state the problem:

  1. We’re not as innovative as our competitors.
  2. We only bring one new product/service to market each year.
  3. Only 5% of our revenue comes from products developed in the past three years.

The first problem statement is vague and poorly defined. Even so, it leads you to an inquiry into measurement. How do you measure innovation? How do your competitors measure it? Are you measuring the number of new products and services, or the value/revenue of those new products and services? If you only bring one new product to market each year, but it’s always a home run, does it matter? Is quality more important than quantity? What metrics are your competitors using?

The second problem statement leads you to investigate the process by which innovations are brought to market as well as the culture around innovation. How many new ideas died in committee? What criteria are used to determine whether or not to bring something new to market? Are people afraid to fail, or do you have an environment that rewards risk-taking? Do people get credit for innovation (or attempted innovation), or do the highest-ranking people typically get the credit?

The third one leads you to consider the pricing, promotion, and placement of new products and services. Perhaps your innovation engine is purring smoothly, but the sales and marketing function lacks the skills and experience to leverage something new. The sales team at one company I worked with is uncomfortable bringing out new designs. They rely heavily on older items they’re more comfortable selling, and as a result don’t give the new products a fair chance to establish themselves in the market.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with any of the frames for these problems. They all serve a purpose. However, it’s important to recognize that the words you choose have a tremendous impact on both the trajectory of your problem-solving efforts and the countermeasures you land on. So next time you’re faced with a problem, and perhaps you’re struggling to find a solution, try rewriting the statement by either changing the subject or how you’re measuring the problem You’ll likely find that a small change of words can lead to a big change in your perspective.

Daniel Markovitz is president of Markovitz Consulting, a firm that makes organizations more profitable by improving operations and execution. He is a faculty member at the Lean Enterprise Institute and teaches at the Stanford University Continuing Studies Program. His newest book on better problem solving is The Conclusion Trap.