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What’s Your Problem?

What’s Your Problem

WE HEAR A LOT about reframing, but do we actually do it? True. We get busy, and we start looking for a solution without first analyzing the problem. We want a quick solution so we can move on. And we “solve” the wrong problem. Reframing helps us to avoid this.

Reframing helps us to see solutions that we would otherwise not see, as we see the issue from different angles. Sometimes the process of reframing leads us to discover that what we thought was the problem is not really the problem at all. It is a symptom of the problem. Solving for symptoms locks us into a perpetual crisis loop like a hamster on an exercise wheel. We end up with laws and rules that solve nothing because we’re solving the wrong problem.

Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg helps us get a handle on this reframing skill in What's Your Problem?: To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve. “Sometimes,” writes Thomas, “to solve a hard problem, you have to stop looking for solutions to it. Instead, you must turn your attention to the problem itself—not just to analyze it, but to shift the way you frame it. Reframing is not necessarily about the details. It is more about seeing the big picture and having the ability to consider situations from multiple perspectives.”


There are two different ways of reframing a problem: exploring the frame and breaking the frame.

Breaking Frame

When exploring the frame, you’re looking for aspects of the issue that you might not have considered. “Breaking the frame is when you step away completely from the initial framing of the problem.” It is the more important of the two skills because “if you don’t master it, you will get trapped by the initial framing of the problem.” Thomas provides several examples that help you to see reframing in practice.

Reframing, says Thomas, is like a loop off of the straight-line path to a solution. It is “a brief, deliberate redirection that temporarily shifts people’s focus to the higher-level question of how the problem is framed. It results in getting back on the path with a new or improved understanding of the problem.” Problems present themselves in three ways: “an ill-defined mess or pain point, a goal we don’t know how to reach, or a solution someone fell in love with.”

Reframing Loop

How to Reframe

Thomas introduces a method we can use on any problem that we face. No problem is too big or too small. He recommends that we “modify the reframing process to fit the size of the problem.” In other words, you can either use all seven steps in the process or scale it down according to how much time is available. “You don’t necessarily have to stick to the sequence. When solving problems as part of a quick workplace conversation, feel free to jump straight to the particular strategy that seems most promising given the problem at hand.” Complex problems take more time to reframe, but some can be reframed in as little as five minutes.

The important consequence of understanding this process is that you become more curious and intentional with problem-solving. You begin to ask questions instead of just jumping to a solution.

Reframing Checklist

Here is a brief overview without all of the insightful and instructive examples:

Frame the Problem
What is the problem we are trying to solve?
Don’t accept the problem statement at face value. Ask: Is the statement true? Are there self-imposed limitations? Is a solution “baked into” the problem framing? Is the problem clear? With whom is the problem located? Are there strong emotions? Are there false trade-offs?

Look Outside the Frame
What are we missing?
Avoid delving into the details of the issue you face. Zoom out. Ask: What’s missing from the current problem statement? Are there elements we’re not considering? Is there anything outside the frame that we’re not currently paying attention to? Thomas also advises to look beyond your own expertise, hidden influences, and consider causal events prior to the situation.

Rethink the Goal
Is there a better objective to pursue?
As we focus on the problem and how to solve it, it “prevents us from questioning a more important thing: the goal we’re trying to reach.”

Examine Bright Spots
Where is the problem not?
“Look for situations or places where the problem is not as bad, or where it may even be entirely absent. Paying attention to such positive exceptions can give you a new perspective on the problem, and may even point you directly to a viable solution.”

Look in the Mirror
What is my/our role in creating this problem?
“Even if you don’t contribute to the problem, ask whether you can react differently to it.”

Take Their Perspective
What is their problem?
“Discovering how others see the world—and in particular, how they see it differently from you—is perhaps the most fundamental form or reframing there is.”

Research has shown that people focus too much on their own perspective when trying to understand others. Try to disregard your own preferences. Focus only on how they might feel and think.

Move Forward
How can I validate my/our framing of the problem through real-world testing?
After you have reframed the problem, test it our to see if you are, in fact, targeting the right problem. You may have a number of reframed-problems at the end of this process. In that case, narrow them down by looking for surprising, simple, r significant-if-true framings.

Thomas also offers some approaches when dealing with people who resist the process and those who are in denial.

What’s Your Problem? is the most thorough and practical book you’ll read on this critical habit of problem-solving and thinking well. Well-illustrated, and full of clarifying examples, he teaches you how to reframe any issue you encounter in either your personal or professional life.

On the What’s Your Problem? website, you can find a Reframing Worksheet and Checklist, and other useful downloads.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 06:20 PM
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