Framing the problem

The problem is we don’t understand the problem!

— Paul MacCready

The famous American engineer Paul MacReady cites the obvious. Solving a problem means to understand it first. The same is true for an opportunity. It is tempting to quickly frame the problem and get started with the more exciting ideation phase – yes, it is more fun – right away. Yes, it might be more fun, but identifying and analyzing the problem space precisely is more important for the innovative journey’s success. Developing the best solution does not help if it is for the wrong problem or opportunity. It is better to fall in love with the problem, not with the solution. This allows for much more flexibility in the ideation phase! 

Problem solving encompasses two steps. The Problem Framing and the Problem Prioritisation. The objective is to formulate a concrete problem statement that addresses the relevant issues to derive the challenge(s) for the Solution Building’s subsequent phase.

The Frame

The frame, the term being coined by Erving Goffman in the context of sociology, describes a set of principles, rules, or values used to deconstruct and make sense of our world or a specific situation. Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky emphasize the importance of problem framing in the decision making process. And there are lots of decisions to make during the Innovation Process. This is why Framing is such an essential skill for innovation management.

Good to know!

Humans tend to see the world through only one frame. The 19th century poem „The Blind Men and the Elephant“ by John Godfrey Saxe captures this quite well.

Six blind men want to understand how an Elephant looks like. Each of them touches the Elephant at a different part of it’s body. Afterwards they dispute the form of the Elephant. The man, who feels the leg is convinced the Elephant must look like a tree, the other touches the tusk imagines a spear and so on. Every one of the six men obviously has it right to some extent, but overall they get it wrong, because each one is convinced that his perception is the right one.

Today’s world is full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Therefore it is important to broaden ones view by taking other perspectives, by empathizing and and regarding them properly. Often an infinite numbers of possible perspectives seem to appear out of nowhere, when starting to dig into available information. The more information is gathered, the more frames are available the more substantial a decision can be made.

Digging Deep to Understand

Therefore, the Problem Framing objective is to identify as many different frames as possible – other than one’s own. The term Problem Discovery could also be a good fit. Digging deep into a problem helps to get a very concrete view of the characteristics, and its interconnections, helps to identify existing subproblems and newly emerging opportunities. It can be done alone, but working in a group with diverse backgrounds (science, technology, sociology, marketing, etc.) is so much more effective as everyone already brings a different frame to the table. However, this seems to have limits, as recent research shows that groups could negatively affect divergent thinking. It is about choosing proper methods and tools to avoid that, of which various are available to support this step.

At the end of the divergent phase, the innovator has gained a broad view and a general understanding of the field she/he is tackling. The next step, Problem Prioritisation, focuses on converging the insights into a concrete problem statement.