If you've ever worked with management consultants, you might have heard some version of the slow elevator story. Here's the gist: Tenants have been complaining about long waits for an old elevator in their building. They want a new elevator, maybe a new motor. But the building management has another idea. They hang a mirror next to the elevator and complaints drop as tenants pass the time checking out their reflection while they wait.
Consultant Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, co-author of Innovation as Usual: How to Help Your People Bring Great Ideas to Life, uses that story to illustrate the value of reframing a problem. The elevator might still be old and slow, but by recasting the problem as one of long waits rather than aging facilities, the building management was able to find an easier and cheaper way to keep tenants happy.
While many managers and teams have become good at solving problems, identifying problems can be a trickier task. "Many diagnostic processes are overly complicated," says Wedell-Wedellsborg. Even simpler techniques can lead to people going deeper and deeper into the details of what they first identify as the problem, closing off other options.
Opening up the discussion before a problem is defined can lead to solutions that require less time, effort or money to implement. Defining the right problem first is especially critical for corporations seeking to identify startups that can provide innovative approaches.
Reframing Problems in Seven Steps
After spending more than a decade studying how reframing can lead to creative solutions, Wedell-Wedellsborg has developed this reframing process to help teams find the problem that is most easily solved:
1. Establish legitimacy.
If you are working with a group, you'll first want to build support for the effectiveness of the process. Using the slow elevator example can help teams quickly see how the approach works.
2. Bring in outsiders.
Insiders may have already committed to a solution or to the definition of a problem and may find it hard to leave behind. Outsiders often are the ones that provide fresh perspective.
3. Write it down.
Everyone in the group should jot down definitions of possible problems as they come up, as the different words people choose can reveal different frames
4. Ask what's missing.
Team members might think they're reframing a problem when they're only refining or adding details to one that is already being discussed. That may reinforce the definition of a problem and narrow the options too soon. Asking people what might be missing from the approaches on the table allows them to come at the topic again from a new angle.
5. Consider multiple categories.
Ask the group to name more than one category a problem might fall into. Changing the category sparks ideas and can keep the team from going down the wrong path. For example, if the first impulse is that the problem is about sales, trying looking at it as a marketing or customer service problem instead and see what happens.
6. Analyze positive exceptions.
Identify occasions when the problem did not happen, and determine what was different about those situations. Doing so can uncover hidden factors and lead to new solutions.
7. Question the objective.
Have group members clarify why they want or need a problem to be solved, and challenge those goals. Are there other ways to achieve them? Are there other objectives that might be more important or urgent? New objectives can lead to new frames for a problem — and their solutions.
This process can help corporations looking to collaborate with startups to clarify first what problem needs to be solved. Intrigued? Wedell-Wedellsborg goes into a more detailed explanation of this seven-step process in the January/February 2017 issue of the Harvard Business Review.
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