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Issues of problem framing

smartangle newsletter · Apr 2021

Issues of problem framing. Stating your real problem is not an easy task, at all. Most of people who are asked to describe a problem with a clear and exhaustive statement, fail or have issues. Why this? Let’s try to figure out.

When we start a project, we usually sit in front of our customer’s team and try to understand, with them, the problem the company wants to tackle. We let the team members explain what are the challenges they face, and what they tried out to face them.

Frequently, the team tries really hard to describe what the problem is, but at the end, we barely understand it. In many cases the problem complexity is a huge burden for the team, and this could represent a clear hurdle in identifying the real problem.

On our opinion, when this is the case, there is only a way to follow: start a problem framing activity.

Actually, we could say that problem framing is the very front-end of problem solving, and is commonly associated to the problem statement, or brief. In order to understand what the real problem is, across the decades, many methods and techniques came up to deep dive into the real root causes.

Just by googling the terms “problem solving” you will get millions of results that are pointing to the many techniques and tools to analyse a problem. Well, all fine, but we would really like to point out that the problem is framing the problem. Excuse the word pun.

That is the reason why we mainly focused on how a team could frame, and then state, the problem. After years in firefighting a huge bunch of problems, either as employees and consultants, we have realised that while approaching a problem, there are always different points of view and overlapping patterns.

But let’s focus on where the issues are coming from, when a team tries to frame a problem. In this short article we are not going to provide solutions or guidelines to frame a problem, we will just suggest how to recognise the main issues a team could have.

We will time by time suggest a full guideline in the next articles on our blog, as a sort of step-by-step approach to follow in order to be able to frame a problem as best as you can.

Seeing the big picture

Usually team members use to look at their own “share” of the problem. Mainly, they look at how the problem is affecting their work, their performance, their outcomes and results. This is, for sure, a good starting point, but it doesn’t provide the real picture.

You should try to figure out if and how the same problem is affecting other departments, or teams, and try to see it from these other points of view. This is the only way to have the best and biggest picture of the problem, and tackle it in order to solve it for the company, and not just for the team.

This problem is complex

When describing a problem, usually a team tries to also figure out its complexity. This is correct, but when it combines with a limited point of view, as previously described, it could be dangerous.

The reason for that is because the complexity could be “relative”, which means not all the teams could see or share the same complexity. This is why complexity shall always be “(dis)solved” in less complex components, trying to spot simpler issues to be solved.

Burning or not

How is hot the problem is something that often goes hand in hand with its complexity. For many if a problem is complex, it shall also be burning. Well, it’s not entirely true. Indeed, when approaching a complex problem, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a burning one as well.

Just think about when a problem is very much complex, but maybe it is not a priority and is not jeopardizing the business, then it could be not that hot. When this is the case, we suggest to clearly and objectively define what “complex” and “burning” means to the team (or the business), and to spot the inter-links between complexity and heat.

Who is the customer?

This is something that the most of the times is neglected. We have been in front of many teams, especially in the B2B sector, where teams did not even try to be in the shoes of their customers. When the team does not even consider the customer, we suggest to put some efforts in redefining the customer, then. Indeed, a customer is not only the person, or the company that buys our product, or service. He or she could also be an internal one.

Every problem we are trying to solve will benefit someone, and this someone could be a colleague, a department, a stakeholder, or whomever will be relieved by a painful situation. It could be the same team, as well.

Therefore, do not underestimate the importance of addressing the problem by looking at the customer that will benefit from the solution.

Problem or opportunity?

We use to look at each and every single problem as a future opportunity. This is something that we also warmly suggest to any team we meet. Try to turn the problem upside down, and to look at it as an opportunity for the team, the department, or the business.

If the team looks at the opportunity after the problem, or at the opportunity to improve, it will be even clearer how a problem could be stated and, then, solved. So, this could also be an alternative approach and a fresh-eye view at what you are trying to figure out.

These are just a few recurring issues of problem framing, and the typical hurdles we do face while describing a problem. Anyway, after years of experience, we have our own framework at Smartangle, and we have used it many times with customers, who found our approach easy and straight to the point, well: the problem.