how good
is your
at problem
Probably quite good, if your managers are like
those at the companies I’ve studied. What they struggle with, it turns out, is not solving problems but figuring out what the problems are. In surveys of 106
C-suite executives who represented 91 private and
public-sector companies in 17 countries, I found that a
full 85% strongly agreed or agreed that their organizations were bad at problem diagnosis, and 87% strongly
agreed or agreed that this flaw carried significant
costs. Fewer than one in 10 said they were unaffected
by the issue. The pattern is clear: Spurred by a penchant for action, managers tend to switch quickly into
solution mode without checking whether they really
understand the problem.
It has been 40 years since Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
and Jacob Getzels empirically demonstrated
the central role of problem framing in creativity.
Thinkers from Albert Einstein to Peter Drucker have
emphasized the importance of properly diagnosing
your problems. So why do organizations still struggle
to get it right?
Part of the reason is that we tend to overengineer
the diagnostic process. Many existing frameworks—
TRIZ, Six Sigma, Scrum, and others—are quite comprehensive. When properly applied, they can be tremendously powerful. But their very thoroughness
also makes them too complex and time-consuming to
fit into a regular workday. The setting in which people
most need to be better at problem diagnosis is not the
annual strategy seminar but the daily meeting—so we
need tools that don’t require the entire organization
to undergo weeks-long training programs.
But even when people apply simpler problemdiagnosis frameworks, such as root cause analysis and the related 5 Whys questioning technique,
they often find themselves digging deeper into the
problem they’ve already defined rather than arriving
at another diagnosis. That can be helpful, certainly.
But creative solutions nearly always come from an
alternative definition of your problem.
Through my research on corporate innovation,
much of it conducted with my colleague Paddy
Miller, I have spent close to 10 years working with
and studying reframing—first in the narrow context
of organizational change and then more broadly. In
the following pages I offer a new approach to problem diagnosis that can be applied quickly and, I’ve
found, frequently leads to creative solutions by unearthing radically different framings of familiar and
persistent problems. To put reframing in context,
I’ll explain more precisely just what this approach
is trying to achieve.
Imagine this: You are the owner of an office building,
and your tenants are complaining about the elevator.
It’s old and slow, and they have to wait a lot. Several
tenants are threatening to break their leases if you
don’t fix the problem.
When asked, most people quickly identify some
solutions: replace the lift, install a stronger motor,
or perhaps upgrade the algorithm that runs the lift.
These suggestions fall into what I call a solution space:
a cluster of solutions that share assumptions about
what the problem is—in this case, that the elevator is
slow. This framing is illustrated below.
Install a new lift
Upgrade the motor
Improve the algorithm
However, when the problem is presented to building managers, they suggest a much more elegant solution: Put up mirrors next to the elevator. This simple
measure has proved wonderfully effective in reducing
complaints, because people tend to lose track of time
when given something utterly fascinating to look at—
namely, themselves.
Install a new lift
Upgrade the motor
Improve the algorithm
Reframing the problem
Put up mirrors
Play music
Install a hand sanitizer
Many C-suite executives
(85% of those surveyed)
say their companies
struggle with problem
diagnosis, which comes
with significant costs.
Part of the reason is that
we tend to overengineer
the diagnostic process—
but most problems are
faced in daily meetings.
Here’s a new approach,
in the form of seven
practices for successfully
reframing problems and
finding creative solutions.
The mirror solution is particularly interesting because in fact it is not a solution to the stated problem:
It doesn’t make the elevator faster. Instead it proposes
a different understanding of the problem.
Note that the initial framing of the problem is not
necessarily wrong. Installing a new lift would probably
work. The point of reframing is not to find the “real”
problem but, rather, to see if there is a better one to
solve. In fact, the very idea that a single root problem exists may be misleading; problems are typically
multi­causal and can be addressed in many ways. The
elevator issue, for example, could be reframed as a
peak demand problem—too many people need the lift
at the same time—leading to a solution that focuses
on spreading out the demand, such as by staggering
people’s lunch breaks.
Identifying a different aspect of the problem can
sometimes deliver radical improvements—and even
spark solutions to problems that have seemed intractable for decades. I recently saw this in action when
studying an often overlooked problem in the pet
industry: the number of dogs in shelters.
Dogs are very popular in America: Industry statistics suggest that more than 40% of U.S. households
have one. But this fondness for dogs has a downside:
According to estimates by the ASPCA, one of the largest animal-welfare groups in the United States, more
than 3 million dogs enter a shelter each year and are
put up for adoption.
Shelters and other animal-welfare organizations
work hard to raise awareness of this issue. A typical ad
or poster will show a neglected, sad-looking dog, carefully chosen to evoke compassion, along with a line
such as “Save a life—adopt a dog” or perhaps a request
to donate to the cause. Through this and other initiatives, this notoriously underfunded system manages
to get about 1.4 million dogs adopted each year. But
that leaves more than a million unadopted dogs—and
doesn’t account for the many cats and other pets in
the same situation. There is just a limited amount of
compassion to go around. So despite the impressive
efforts of shelters and rescue groups, the shortage of
pet adopters has persisted for decades.
Lori Weise, the founder of Downtown Dog Rescue
in Los Angeles, has demonstrated that adoption
is not the only way to frame the problem. Weise is
one of the pioneers of an approach that is currently
spreading within the industry—the shelter intervention program. Rather than seek to get more dogs
adopted, Weise tries to keep them with their original
families so that they never enter shelters in the first
place. It turns out that about 30% of the dogs that
enter a shelter are “owner surrenders,” deliberately
relinquished by their owners. In a volunteer-driven
community united by a deep love of animals, those
people have often been heavily criticized for heartlessly discarding their pets as if they were just another consumer good. To prevent dogs from ending
up with such “bad” owners, many shelters, despite
their chronic overpopulation, require potential
adopters to undergo laborious background checks.
Weise has a different take. “Owner surrenders are
not a people problem,” she says. “By and large, they
are a poverty problem. These families love their dogs
as much as we do, but they are also exceptionally
poor. We’re talking about people who in some cases
aren’t entirely sure how they will feed their kids at the
end of the month. So when a new landlord suddenly
demands a deposit to house the dog, they simply
have no way to get the money. In other cases, the dog
needs a $10 rabies shot, but the family has no access
to a vet, or may be afraid to approach any kind of authority. Handing over their pet to a shelter is often the
last option they believe they have.”
Weise started her program in April 2013, collaborating with a shelter in South Los Angeles. The idea
is simple: Whenever a family comes in to hand over
a pet, a staff member asks without judgment if the
family would prefer to keep the pet. If the answer is
yes, the staff member tries to help resolve the problem, drawing on his or her network and knowledge
of the system.
Within the first year it was clear that the program
was a remarkable success. In prior years Weise’s
organization had spent an average of $85 per pet it helped.
The new program brought that
cost down to about $60 while
keeping shelter space free for
other animals in need. And,
Weise told me, that was just the
immediate impact: “The wider
effect on the community is the
real point. The program helps
families learn problem solving,
lets them know their rights and
responsibilities, and teaches
the community that help is
available. It also shifted the industry’s perception of the pet
owners: We found that when
offered assistance, a full 75% of
them actually wanted to keep
their pets.”
As of this writing, Weise’s
program has helped close to
5,000 pets and families and has
gained the formal support of
the ASPCA. Weise has released
a book, First Home, Forever
Home, that explains to other
rescue groups how to run an
intervention program. Thanks
to her reframing of the problem, overcrowded shelters
may someday be a thing of the past.
How might you find a similarly insightful reframing
for your problem?
In my experience, reframing is best taught as a quick,
iterative process. You might think of it as a cognitive
counterpoint to rapid prototyping.
The practices I outline here can be used in one of
two ways, depending on how much control you have
over the situation. One way is to methodically apply
all seven to the problem. That can be done in about
30 minutes, and it has the benefit of familiarizing
every­one with the method.
The other way is suitable when you don’t control
the situation and have to scale the method according to how much time is available. Perhaps a team
member ambushes you in the hallway and you have
only five minutes to help him or her rethink a problem. If so, simply select the one or two practices that
seem most appropriate.
Five minutes may sound like too little time to even
describe a problem, much less reframe it. But surprisingly, I have found that such short interventions are
often sufficient to kick-start new thinking—and once
in a while they can trigger an aha moment and radically shift your view of a problem. Proximity to your
own problems can make it easy
to get lost in the weeds, endlessly ruminating about why a
colleague, a spouse, or your children won’t listen. Sometimes all
you need is someone to suggest,
“Well, could the trouble be that
you are bad at listening to them?”
Of course, not all problems
are that simple. Often multiple rounds of reframing—interspersed with observation,
conversation, and prototyping—are necessary. And in some
cases reframing won’t help at
all. But you won’t know which
problems c an benefit from
being reframed until you try.
Once you’ve mastered the five-­
minute version, you can apply
reframing to pretty much any
problem you face.
Here are the seven practices:
1. Establish legitimacy. It’s
difficult to use reframing if you
are the only person in the room
who understands the method.
Other people, driven by a desire
to find solutions, may feel that
your insistence on discussing the problem is counterproductive. If the group has a power imbalance,
such as when you’re facing clients or more-­senior
colleagues, they may well shut you down before you
even get started. And even powerful executives may
find it hard to use the method when people are accustomed to getting answers rather than questions
from their leaders.
Your first job, therefore, is to establish the method’s
legitimacy within the group, creating the conversational space necessary to employ reframing. I suggest
two ways to do this. The first is to share this article
with the people you are meeting. Even if they don’t
read it, simply seeing it may persuade them to listen
to you. The second is to relate the slow elevator problem, which is my go-to example when I have less than
30 seconds to explain the concept. I have found it to be
a powerful way to quickly explain reframing—how it
differs from merely diagnosing a problem and how
it can potentially create dramatically better results.
2. Bring outsiders into the discussion. This is
the single most helpful reframing practice. I saw it in
action eight years ago when the management team
of a small European company was wrestling with a
lack of innovation in its workforce. The managers had
recently encountered a specific innovation training
technique they all liked, so they started discussing
how best to implement it within the organization.
Sensing that the group lacked an outside voice,
the general manager asked his personal assistant,
Charlotte, to take part in their discussion. “I’ve been
working here for 12 years,” Charlotte told the group,
“and in that time I have seen three different management teams try to roll out some new innovation
framework. None of them worked. I don’t think people would react well to the introduction of another
set of buzzwords.”
Charlotte’s observation prompted the managers to
realize that they had fallen in love with a solution—
introducing an innovation framework—before they
fully understood the problem. They soon concluded
that their initial diagnosis had been wrong: Many of
their employees already knew how to innovate, but
they didn’t feel very engaged in the company, so they
were unlikely to take initiative beyond what their job
descriptions mandated. What the managers had first
framed as a skill-set problem was better approached
as a motivation problem.
They abandoned all talk of innovation workshops
and instead focused on improving employee engagement by (among other things) giving people more
autonomy, introducing flexible working hours, and
switching to a more participatory decision-making
style. The remedy worked. Within 18 months workplace satisfaction scores had doubled and employee
turnover had fallen dramatically. And as people
started bringing their creative abilities to bear at work,
financial results improved markedly. Four years later
the company won an award for being the country’s
best place to work.
As this story shows, getting an outsider’s perspective can be instrumental in rethinking a problem
quickly and properly. To do so most effectively:
Look for “boundary spanners.” As research by
Michael Tushman and many others has shown, the
most useful input tends to come from people who understand but are not fully part of your world. Charlotte
was close enough to the front lines of the company to
know how the employees really felt, but she was also
close enough to management to understand its priorities and speak its language, making her ideally suited
for the task. In contrast, calling on an innovation expert might well have led the team’s members further
down the innovation path instead of inspiring them to
rethink their problem.
Choose someone who will speak freely. By virtue
of her long tenure and her closeness to the general
manager, Charlotte felt free to challenge the management team while remaining committed to its objectives. This sense of psychological safety, as Harvard’s
Amy C. Edmondson calls it, has been proved to help
groups perform better. You might consider turning to
someone whose career advancement will not be determined by the group in question or who has a track
record of (constructively) speaking truth to power.
Expect input, not solutions. Crucially, Charlotte
did not try to provide the group with a solution;
rather, her observation made the managers themselves rethink their problem. This pattern is typical.
By definition, outsiders are not experts on the situation and thus will rarely be able to solve the problem.
That’s not their function. They are there to stimulate
the problem owners to think differently. So when you
bring them in, ask them specifically to challenge the
group’s thinking, and prime the problem owners to
listen and look for input rather than answers.
3. Get people’s definitions in writing. It’s not unusual for people to leave a meeting thinking they all
agree on what the problem is after a loose oral description, only to discover weeks or months later that they
had different views of the issue. Moreover, a successful
reframing may well lurk in one of those views.
For instance, a management team may agree that
the company’s problem is a lack of innovation. But if
you ask each member to describe what’s wrong in a
sentence or two, you will quickly see how framings
differ. Some people will claim, “Our employees aren’t
motivated to innovate” or “They don’t understand the
urgency of the situation.” Others will say, “People don’t
have the right skill set,” “Our customers aren’t willing
to pay for innovation,” or “We don’t reward people for
innovation.” Pay close attention to the wording, because even seemingly inconsequential word choices
can surface a new perspective on the problem.
I saw a memorable demonstration of this when
I was working with a group of managers in the
construction industry, exploring what they could
do as individual leaders to deliver better results.
As we tried to identify the barriers each one faced,
I asked them to write their problems on flip charts,
after which we jointly analyzed the statements. The
very first comment from the group had the greatest
impact: “Almost none of the definitions include the
word ‘I.’” With one exception, the problems were
consistently worded in a way that diffused individual responsibility, such as “My team doesn’t…,” “The
market doesn’t…,” and, in a few cases, “We don’t…”
That one observation shifted the tenor of the meeting, pushing the participants to take more ownership
of the challenges they faced.
These individual definitions of the problem should
ideally be gathered in advance of a discussion. If possible, ask people to send you a few lines in a confidential e-mail, and insist that they write in sentence
form—bullet points are simply too condensed. Then
copy the definitions you’ve collected on a flip chart
so that everyone can see them and react to them in
the meeting. Don’t attribute them, because you want
to ensure that people’s judgment of a definition isn’t
affected by the definer’s identity or status.
Receiving these multiple definitions will sensitize you to the perspectives of other stakeholders.
We all appreciate in theory that others may experience a problem differently (or not see it at all). But as
demonstrated in a recent study by Johannes Hattula,
of Imperial College London, if managers try to imagine
a customer’s perspective themselves, they typically
get it wrong. To understand what other stakeholders
think, you need to hear it from them.
4. Ask what’s missing. When faced with the description of a problem, people tend to delve into the
details of what has been stated, paying less attention
to what the description might be leaving out. To rectify this, make sure to ask explicitly what has not been
captured or mentioned.
Recently I worked with a team of senior executives
in Brazil who had been asked to provide their CEO
with ideas for improving the market’s perception of
the company’s stock price. The team had expertly analyzed the components affecting a stock’s value—the
P/E ratio forecast, the debt ratio, earnings per share,
and so on. Of course, none of this was news to the
CEO, nor were these factors particularly easy to affect,
leading to mild despondency on the team.
But when I prompted the executives to zoom out
and consider what was missing from their definition
of the problem, something new came up. It turned
out that when external financial analysts asked to
speak with executives from the company, the task of
responding was typically delegated to slightly more
junior leaders, none of whom had received training
in how to talk to analysts. As soon as this point was
raised, the group saw that it had found a potential
recommendation for the CEO. (The observation
came not from the team’s finance expert but from
a boundary-­spanning HR executive.)
5. Consider multiple categories. As Lori Weise’s
story demonstrates, powerful change can come from
transforming people’s perception of a problem. One
way to trigger this kind of paradigm shift is to invite
people to identify specifically what category of problem they think the group is facing. Is it an incentive
problem? An expectations problem? An attitude
problem? Then try to suggest other categories.
A manager I know named Jeremiah Zinn did
this when he led the product development team
of the popular children’s entertainment channel
Nickelodeon. The team was launching a promising
new app, and lots of kids downloaded it. But actually activating the app was somewhat complicated,
because it required logging in to the household’s cable TV service. At that point in the sign-up process,
almost every kid dropped out.
Seeing the problem as one of usability, the team
put its expertise to work and ran hundreds of A/B
tests on various sign-up flows, seeking to make the
process less complex. Nothing helped.
The shift came when Zinn realized that the team
members had been thinking of the problem too narrowly. They had focused on the kids’ actions, carefully
tracking every click and swipe—but they had not explored how the kids felt during the sign-up process.
That turned out to be critical. As the team started
looking for emotional reactions, it discovered that
the request for the cable password made the kids fear
getting in trouble: To a 10-year-old kid, a password
request signals forbidden territory. Equipped with
that insight, Zinn’s team simply added a short video
explaining that it was OK to ask parents for the password—and saw a rapid 10-fold increase in the sign-up
rate for the app.
By explicitly highlighting how the group thinks
about a problem—what is sometimes called metacognition, or thinking about thinking—you can often
help people reframe it, even if you don’t have other
frames to suggest. And it’s a useful way of sorting
through written definitions if you managed to gather
them in advance.
Zinn’s story also exposes a typical pitfall in problem solving, first expressed by Abraham Kaplan in
his famous law of the instrument: “Give a small boy a
hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” At Nickelodeon, because the
team members were usability experts, they defaulted
to thinking the problem was one of usability.
6. Analyze positive exceptions. To find additional problem framings, look to instances when the
problem did not occur, asking, “What was different
about that situation?” Exploring such positive exceptions, sometimes called bright spots, can often uncover hidden factors whose influence the group may
not have considered.
A lawyer I spoke to, for instance, told me that the partners
at his firm would occasionally
meet to discuss initiatives that
might grow their business in
the longer term. But to his frustration, the instant one of those
meetings ended, he and the other
partners went back to focusing on
landing the next short-term project. When prompted to think of
positive exceptions, he remembered one longer-term initiative
that had in fact gone forward.
What was different about
that one? I asked. It was that
the meeting, unusually, had included not just partners but also
an associate who was considered a rising star—and it was she
who had pursued the idea. That
immediately suggested that talented associates be included in
future meetings. The associates
felt privileged and energized
by being invited to the strategic
discussions, and unlike the partners, they had a clear short-term
incentive to move on long-term
projects—namely, to impress the partners and gain an
edge in the competition against their peers.
Looking at positive exceptions can also make the
discussion less threatening. Especially in a large group
or other public setting, dissecting a string of failures
can quickly become confrontational and make people
overly defensive. If, instead, you ask the group’s members to analyze a positive outcome, it becomes easier
for them to examine their own behavior.
7. Question the objective. In the negotiation
classic Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, and
Bruce Patton share the early management thinker Mary
Parker Follett’s story about two people fighting over
whether to keep a window open or closed. The underlying goals of the two turn out to differ: One person
wants fresh air, while the other wants to avoid a draft.
Only when these hidden objectives are brought to light
through the questions of a third person is the problem
resolved—by opening a window in the next room.
That story highlights another way to reframe a
problem—by paying explicit attention to the objectives of the parties involved, first clarifying and then
challenging them. Weise’s shelter intervention program, for instance, hinged on a shift in the objective,
from increasing adoption to keeping more pets with
their original owners. The story of Charlotte, too, included a shift in the stated goals of the management
team, from teaching innovation skills to boosting
employee engagement.
As described in Fred Kaplan’s
book The Insurgents, a famous
contemporary example is the
change in U.S. military doctrine
pioneered by General David
Petraeus, among others. In traditional warfare, the aim of a battle
is to defeat the enemy forces. But
Petraeus and his allies argued that
when dealing with insurgencies,
the army had to pursue a different, broader objective to prevent
new enemies from cropping up—
namely, get the populace on its
side, thereby removing the source
of recruits and other forms of local
support the insurgency needed to
operate in the area. That approach
was eventually adopted by the
military—because a small group of
rogue thinkers took it upon themselves to question the predefined
and long-standing objectives of
their organization.
takes time and practice to get good
at it. One senior executive from the
defense industry told me, “I was
shocked by how difficult it is to reframe problems, but
also how effective it is.” As you start to work more with
the method, urge your team to trust the process, and
be prepared for it to feel messy and confusing at times.
In leading more and more reframing discussions,
you may also be tempted to create a diagnostic checklist. I strongly caution you against that—or at least
against making the checklist evident to the group
you’re engaging with. A checklist for problem diagnosis tends to discourage actual thinking, which of
course defeats the very purpose of engaging in reframing. As Neil Gaiman reminds us in The Sandman, tools
can be the subtlest of traps.
Finally, combine reframing with real-world testing.
The method is ultimately limited by the knowledge
and perspectives of the people in the room—and as
Steve Blank, of Stanford, and others have repeatedly
shown, it is fatal to think you can figure it all out within
the comfy confines of your own office. The next time
you face a problem, start by reframing it—but don’t
wait too long before getting out of the building to observe your customers and prototype your ideas. It is
neither thinking nor testing alone, but a marriage of the
two, that holds the key to radically better results.
HBR Reprint R1701D
THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG is an independent consultant
and speaker and a coauthor of Innovation as Usual: How
to Help Your People Bring Great Ideas to Life (Harvard Business
Review Press, 2013).
Copyright 2017 Harvard Business Publishing. All Rights Reserved. Additional restrictions
may apply including the use of this content as assigned course material. Please consult your
institution’s librarian about any restrictions that might apply under the license with your
institution. For more information and teaching resources from Harvard Business Publishing
including Harvard Business School Cases, eLearning products, and business simulations
please visit hbsp.harvard.edu.
College of Administrative and Financial Sciences
MGT 312
Assignment 1
Deadline: End of Week 7, 05/03/2020 @ 23:59
Course Name: Decision Making and
Problem Solving
Student’s Name:
Course Code: MGT 312
Student’s ID Number:
Semester: I
Academic Year: 1440/1441 H
For Instructor’s Use only
Instructor’s Name:
Students’ Grade: Marks Obtained/Out of
Level of Marks: High/Middle/Low
• The Assignment must be submitted on Blackboard (WORD format only) via allocated
• Assignments submitted through email will not be accepted.
• Students are advised to make their work clear and well presented, marks may be
reduced for poor presentation. This includes filling your information on the cover page.
• Students must mention question number clearly in their answer.
• Late submission will NOT be accepted.
• Avoid plagiarism, the work should be in your own words, copying from students or
other resources without proper referencing will result in ZERO marks. No exceptions.
• All answered must be typed using Times New Roman (size 12, double-spaced) font.
No pictures containing text will be accepted and will be considered plagiarism).
• Submissions without this cover page will NOT be accepted.
Course Learning Outcomes-Covered

Apply and analyze various concepts of problem solving in diverse contexts and business
situations. (1.5 & 2.2)

Identify and analyze different perspectives on understanding problems for different situations.

Demonstrate understanding of working with the problem owners and other stakeholders. (1.7)
Assignment Instructions:
• Log in to Saudi Digital Library (SDL) via University’s website
• On first page of SDL, choose “English Databases”
• From the list find and click on EBSCO database.
• In the search bar of EBSCO find the following article:
“Are You Solving the Right Problems”
Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg
Date of Publication:
January–February 2017
Harvard Business Review
Assignment Questions:
(Marks 05)
1. Read the attached article titled as “Are You Solving the Right Problems” by Thomas WedellWedellsborg, published in Harvard Business Review, and answer the following Questions: [5
a. Summarize the article and explain the main issues discussed in the article. (In 600-700
b. Discuss the seven practices for effective reframing of the problems. (In 100-300 words)
c. What do you think about the article in relations to what you have learnt in the course about
identification of problems for decision making? Use additional reference to support you
argument. (In 200-400 words)
[Please answer in the next page]

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