Unlike birthday presents, complex problems aren’t much fun to unwrap. Nonetheless, identifying the root of an issue — and spotting a neat way to solve it — can be as rewarding as any gift pack of socks, crocs or chocolates. It’s time to dive into how an artful re-frame can regain a grasp of complex problems.
When faced with a difficult issue, start by revisiting the basic principles of problem framing. This means learning:
- What’s the history of the problem?
- To listen and re-visit your beliefs
- To balance collaboration with systems thinking
- To test and suspend your judgement
Let’s dig a little into each of these.
Uncover the history and context of the problem. In Frame Innovation, Kees Dorst describes this as “the archaeology” of problem-solving. This means trawling through all available data — including reports, anecdotes and prior methods. This is to prevent you from repeating mistakes, re-inventing the wheel or slipping into groupthink.
Listen widely. Once you’ve learned what hasn’t worked before, it’s time to start filling in the gaps on what you don’t yet know. Collaborate widely to understand the patterns, structures and mental modes that define an issue. For public-facing problems, here’s a 3-minute video on how citizen engagement can support problem reframing. For a great case study: listening to citizens in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, made a huge impact on waste management problems.
Use systems thinking. Once you’ve heard from every relevant perspective, then start joining the dots. Consider the material, ideological or strategic reasons that shape each person’s viewpoint. Surprising connections and conclusions may start to emerge — as seen in this public servant’s route to the root of a littering problem.
Test a solution early When you think you have found a solution, it’s easy to fall a bit in love with it. Don’t. Instead: test early, change rapidly and be ready to jump straight back to the drawing board. Use sacrificial concepts to keep you from getting too attached to solutions.
Naturally, all the above needs balancing against time and budget constraints. It may also be worth watching out for the common pitfalls facing problem framing.