Reframe Problems
What's Your Problem?

Reframe Problems

Innovation consultant Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg offers a simple, counterintuitive, commonsense approach to problem-solving.

Fully 85% of companies wrestle with spending time and money on a problem that turns out not to be the issue they must solve. To avoid this pitfall, innovation expert Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg offers innovative, amusing guidance for success with the crucial step of reframing problems. 

If tenants complain about a slow elevator, for example, do you replace it, he asks, or do you add mirrors to the lobby, so people can marvel at themselves and don’t mind waiting? The mirror solution emerges from re-examining the issue and querying a building manager – not an engineer – about what might work. The author offers an array of effective – sometimes counterintuitive – real-world solutions in this quick, engaging read. Take the word of bestselling author Adam Grant, who named this a Top Pick among 2020 leadership books.

The Right Problem?

Learning to frame and reframe problems enables you to be sure you are solving the right problem and to generate better ideas.

The “slow elevator problem” exemplifies reframing. Tenants complained to their building’s owner about having to wait a long time for the elevator, which they said was outdated and slow. The owner wondered if he had to buy a new motor or install an expensive new elevator. A building manager offered simpler advice: Hang mirrors next to the elevators. People stop being impatient when they are looking at themselves.

You can’t hope to frame a problem correctly unless you…test your thinking in the real world.Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg

Reframing, the act of considering problems from various perspectives, helps you avoid any biases that favor hasty action. Wedell-Wedellsborg urges you to take a breath and consider your emotions around a problem and how they may confuse your thinking.

Dogs or Owners?

Two different agencies considered the same problem: How to reduce the number of dogs people brought to shelters for adoption. The BarkBox group realized one problem: people couldn’t easily see the dogs it had available for adoption. For $8,000 in setup costs, BarkBox created an app showing a million dog profiles a month. More than 250,000 people downloaded information about adoptable dogs.

Meanwhile, Downtown Dog Rescue interviewed people who gave up their pets and discovered that 75% of them cited a lack of resources as the reason. By assisting those families in providing for their pets, Downtown Dog Rescue decreased its spending per animal and reduced the number of dogs people left at its Rescue agency.

Define The Problem

To learn the reframing process, select a problem – such as exploring how to make more money or improve your relationships.

Write down the problem in a few sentences and list the stakeholders involved. Then consider whether your statements about the problem are true, whether you could be making incorrect assumptions and if your presentation suggests only a single solution.

Clarifying…higher-level goals can lead you directly to a creative solution.Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg

Beware of reverting to automatic, go-to solutions. For example, a Brazilian CEO asked his executives how to improve the market’s perception of the company’s stock. Most researched financial answers. A canny HR executive realized that when market analysts called to talk about the stock, they were speaking to junior, untrained people instead of experienced personnel. When he changed that communication channel, so senior people spoke to analysts, they began to get a more complete and more positive picture.


Does a problem recur throughout your organization? For example, if retaining employees proves problematic in most units of your company, ask what you could learn from the divisions that don’t have a retention problem? What are those managers doing right?

Seek and use knowledge from companies in other industries. If you’re unsure whether other firms have experienced the same problem, broadcast it on a site that provides problem-solving help, such as InnoCentive. When you ask for help, don’t predefine the solution. Include what you tried previously, why you want to solve the problem and any restrictions on a solution, such as budgetary concerns.

By defining your problem in less detail, you make it easier to find bright spots elsewhere.Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg

Make sure you give people latitude in solving problems and offer motivational incentives. For example, when a client insisted that an advertising agency create a viral video on YouTube, the agency’s manager quit considering other promotional strategies because her bonus depended on creating viral videos.

Issues, People and Biases

Instead of trying to validate your ideas, Wedell-Wedellsborg suggests, seek to disprove them. Entertain alternatives, but beware, also, of creating too many solution options. Seek and pursue the most simple.

To provide an entry point into reframing, ask your team members to email you their interpretations of the problem at hand. Share their contributions at a meeting to demonstrate how people may view the same issue differently and to generate a free-flowing discussion of possible solutions.

Stimulate the problem owners to think differently. Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg

People may refuse to accept the findings of this process, because it forces them to deal with something they’d rather ignore or that runs counter to their immediate well-being. So, as you consider counterintuitive solutions, be on the lookout for incongruous objections and consider their true source.

State your case with evidence. For instance, in the days of floppy disks, an engineering team built a computer with an air vent on the back. A consultant warned that users might mistake the vent for a disk slot. The engineers maintained that no one could be that dumb. The consultant then filmed the company’s unaware CEO repeatedly trying to put a disk into the vent.

Also be on the alert for confirmation bias – when you develop an idea or solution, that you like so much you exclude or ignore alternative ideas. Define and explore many working solutions to counteract falling in love with your first idea.  Most problems have more than one solution, and no one wants to pursue a bad fix.

Master of Compression

A primary reason Wedell-Wedellsborg garners rave reviews and strong sales is his conversational, simply phrased style. He’s immensely readable and offers just enough explanations and examples of his recommended methods. In the reverse of many business guides, Wedell-Wedellsborg is definitely not trying to stretch a magazine article into a book; he’s a master of compression who gets his themes across in the minimum of words. 

This admirable trait makes his advice resonate even more strongly, and if you go back into his pages to search for a specific suggestion, you will find it easily.

Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg co-wrote Innovation As Usual: How to Help Your People Bring Great Ideas To Life with Paddy Miller.

Other notable works on problem-solving include Bulletproof Problem Solving – The One Skill That Changes Everything by Charles Conn with Robert McLean; Cracked It! How to Solve Big Problems and Sell Solutions Like Top Strategy Consultants by Bernard Garrette, Corey Phelps and Olivier Sibony; and Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp.

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