How to Think Clearly and Make Better Decisions: Part 2 – Frame and reframe the problem

When tackling problems, we often jump into action without thinking deeply about what we are trying to solve. What needs to be tweaked? What needs to be overhauled? What must be kept? What must be scrapped? Is the problem single-rooted or multifaceted? Is there a better problem to solve?

Solving the wrong problems wastes time, resources and energy and might even lead to unintended consequences that make the situation worse. Yet we sometimes overlook how we frame the problem before we set goals, form an action plan, communicate directives, and implement next steps.

Our mental models shape our behavior and influence our perceptions. We use them to deal with uncertainty, make sense of the world, and decide what to do next.

In part 1 of this 3-part article, I discuss how echo chambers condition you to distrust contrary views, arguments and information that disconfirm your cognitive bias. Getting out of your echo chambers helps you understand multiple perspectives, strengthen your thinking, and make fully informed decisions.

The second step to thinking clearly and making better decisions is to frame and reframe the problem before you move forward.

This is especially important in group decision-making, when individuals collectively select a solution from among the alternatives before them. You ask the right questions, use correct framing, and define the problem effectively. Otherwise, you end up with fragile consensus or prolonged gridlock.

In his book, What’s Your Problem?, author Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg notes, “The way you frame a problem determines which solutions you come up with.” He adds, “By shifting the way you see a problem – that is, by reframing it – you can sometimes find radically better solutions.”

The reframing canvas has 3 parts, with the “reframing loop” as a break in the normal straight line path from defining the problem to moving toward a solution.

1. Frame

Relevant questions are: what’s the problem you are aiming to solve? why exactly is this a problem for people? who’s involved?

This is the initial framing of a problem, which triggers the reframing loop. You examine whether the issue is presented neutrally or is narrowly defined to favor a certain type of solution.

2. Reframe

Relevant questions are: is there a different way to view the problem? what’s missing from the current framing of the problem? are there other factors worth paying attention to? what is the broader context to consider?

This is the redefining of a problem. You zoom out and look outside the familiar frame. You don’t just focus on the visible details, but also unearth the hidden aspects of the situation.

You rethink the goal, which means clarifying higher-level goals, distinguishing facts from beliefs, finding easier or alternative ways to reach a desired outcome, and questioning the goal itself (even if it seems obvious and undoubtedly good).

You examine bright spots (positive exceptions), which are areas of the situation where there are no problems or the problems are not so bad. Consider whether you have ever solved the problem and apply that experience. Look to the past for examples of when the expected problem did not occur, had no ill effects, or was less severe than usual.

Aim to recreate favorable circumstances and positive behaviors that make the bright spot. If you have not previously encountered the problem, look to others — including outside your industry — who have dealt with it or something similar. Frame your problem in more abstract terms instead of getting too specific.

You look in the mirror, which is examining your role in creating the problem. First, you explore your own contribution, e.g. what input did you provide that was reasonable, but didn’t help much?

Second, you scale the problem down to your individual level, instead of keep it at a systems-level. Is there a part of the problem where you have more control and influence? Can you solve it or take action on it on a more local level?

Third, you develop external self-awareness and get an outside view of yourself. How do other people see you? Do you know how your behavior affects others or comes across to others?

You take their perspective, where you seek to understand others’ context and viewpoint, not just their pain or emotions. This is different from having empathy, i.e. feeling what someone else feels.

Step away from your preferences, experiences and emotions and consider how others might see things differently from you. Adopt a benevolent view and assume people intend to do good things. Consider reasonable and innocent explanations for situations that need to be fixed.

3. Move Forward

Relevant questions are: how do you keep momentum? have you tested the problem and worked to frame it properly before you switch into solution mode? how will you validate your problem framing in the real world?

Describe the problem to the stakeholders to develop trust and encourage collaboration. Get outsiders (who are less emotionally invested in your solution) to provide input and feedback. Devise a hard test to determine whether the problem is serious enough for stakeholders to participate in solving it. Test the problem and the solution at the same time through “pretotyping,” i.e. roll out a smaller version of the solution to see if stakeholders show interest and buy into it.

Revisit the problem and possibly reframe it through regular intervals and scheduled check-ins. You could hold a daily, weekly or monthly staff meeting to review progress and results, especially in fast-changing situations. Contexts and priorities can change and new data and information can be gained as you move forward.

Frame and reframe the problem before you keep pursuing a course of action

Before you decide on a course of action, ask whether there are alternative and better ways to frame the problem. Are there important nuances being overlooked? Is the problem really one that needs solving? Have you fallen in love with a solution before fully understanding the problem?

The way you define a problem affects the depth and breadth of proposed solutions. Whether you’re providing legal advice, building a marketing strategy, addressing client needs or hiring a team member, pay close attention to how you frame the problem in the first place. Reframing is a powerful tool to address pertinent issues, rethink objectives, and move forward in a positive direction.

Reframing involves seeing the big picture. Only then will you be able to consider the situation with different perspectives and from diverse viewpoints. It’s not about defining the real problem, but more about examining different aspects of the problem to create better solutions.

Wedell-Wedellsborg offers a simple example known as The Slow Elevator Problem. The initial problem statement, “The elevator is too slow,” generates proposed solutions to make it faster, e.g. upgrade the motor, improve the algorithm, and install a new elevator. Although these solutions might work to reduce customer complaints, they tend to be costly.

When building managers reframe the problem to “The wait is annoying,” this leads to easier and less costly solutions that make the wait feel shorter, e.g. put up mirrors, install hand sanitizers, and play music. And a better problem is solved to reach a desired outcome, which is higher customer satisfaction.

Reframing means you dig deeper into how the problem is initially framed (explore the frame) or move away from the initial framing of the problem (break the frame). When you use the power of reframing, you gain an improved understanding of the issues, avoid focusing on the wrong problem, and invest resources on a problem really worth solving.

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For more information on thinking clearly and making better decisions, read part 1 (Get out of echo chambers) and part 3 (Keep experts on tap, not on top) of this multipart article.

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Dyan Williams is a productivity coach who helps working parents, lawyers, small business owners and other busy people turn their ideas into action, reduce overwhelm, and focus on what truly matters. She is also a solo lawyer who practices U.S. immigration law and legal ethics at Dyan Williams Law PLLC. She is the author of The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps, an e-book at