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How product managers can find a new angle on problems and be better problem solvers
One of the most powerful tools available to product managers and innovators is, wait for it… reframing! We use it in two primary ways. First, to help us solve the right problem. Second, to take an existing innovation and apply it in a more valuable way. The story of Wisk is one of my favorites, which we discuss in this interview.
Our guest is a master at reframing, teaching organizations how they can use this powerful approach. He also shared the tools of reframing in his book, What’s Your Problem, published by Harvard Business Review. His name is Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg and he has helped innovators across the globe. His contributions to innovation earned him the recognition as a “top 20 International Thinker.” Get ready for some reframing.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[4:04] Why are a lot of people not naturally good problem solvers?
There are two parts to problem solving. Most of use are good at idea generation–coming up with new ideas to solve a problem. The other part, problem finding, is vastly under-studied. Problem finding is understanding the problem itself.
[7:23] What example can you share of looking at the right problem?
I like the Slow Elevator Problem. Suppose you’re the owner of an office building, and your tenants are annoyed that the elevator is too slow. Many people, especially engineers, might try to fix this by making the elevator faster. Instead, landlords often put mirrors in the elevator. When people focus on the mirrors, they forget time. The mirrors are a solution to a different problem–they don’t make the elevator faster, but they solve the problem of people being annoyed. Often to find a solution, you have to step back from the problem that’s been put in front of you and consider whether there’s another solution.
[15:40] What are the steps for reframing a problem?
Start with saying, “Wait, what’s the problem we’re trying to solve?” This first step is important because it keeps people from going into solution mode. Don’t figure out how you’re going to build something; figure out why you’re going to build it. Put the reason in a sentence or two. Next, step back and ask, “Is there a different way of thinking about that problem?” Finally, swing back into action, bring the problem into the real world, and start talking to people, testing, and prototyping.
Reframing problems is a very rapid process. It should be a habit of mind; whenever you’re presented with a problem, quickly take a step back and figure out what you’re trying to achieve. Reframing problems is also really difficult to do alone. Recruit others to discuss the problem with, so that you can look at it from different perspectives.
I’ve created a few simple rules for ways of questioning. I’ve mentioned the importance of stepping outside the frame of the problem. Another tool is looking for bright spots. Look for positive exceptions of someone else dealing with the problem or a time when you solved the problem before. Rethink your goal. Question whether you’re aiming for the right goal. Think beyond the scope of the problem that is presented and find a new angle. Look in the mirror. Look at your own role in the problem and try to figure out how to do something differently. Instead of wishing you could change your clients, figure out what you need to change about yourself and the work you’re doing.
[28:38] How do we know whether we’ve framed a problem correctly?
Use an iterative process. Reframe the problem, then work on it, then revisit it and ask what you’ve learned and whether you’re on the right track. Go out and test–do experiments, talk to people, and prototype–to figure out whether you’re on the right track. Sometimes, you suddenly know that a particular perspective makes sense based on your past experience, and that can also be a sign that you’re onto something important.
Bonus Question: What challenges have you seen with reframing problems and how can we avoid those?
Some people emphasize doing over thinking. You can solve a lot of small problems by just moving forward, and you don’t have to take a huge amount of time to think deeply about your problems. But it is important to make sure you’re solving the right problems by taking five or ten minutes to reframe your problem.
You can run into resistance when your client just wants to move forward, but you think the problem needs to be reframed. One approach is to present a framework that includes reframing. People will tend to trust the process. Positioning and the words you choose are very important. You can collect data or perform an assessment to help make a point. And sometimes you have to let people make a mistake. If someone is resistant to reframing, you might need to just gain their trust so that in the future they’ll be more open.
- Book: What’s Your Problem?: To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve
- Book: Innovation as Usual: How to Help Your People Bring Great Ideas to Life
- All about reframing problems at How to Reframe
- Thomas’ website, Wedell’s Blog
“The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions.”— Peter Drucker, in Men, Ideas, & Politics
Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.