Framing the Problem

How are we thinking about the situation?

Framing a problem means to offer an initial statement of the essential nature of the problem (captured in the 6 problem types explored elsewhere). It identifies the feature of the problem that cannot be ignored. Without at least an initial statement of the most likely problem type, there is no clarity on the most appropriate approach.

In an organization with a widely shared understanding of the problem solving types, this designation becomes a shorthand way of referencing material about what to focus on, how to proceed, what a solution would look like, and what can be expected from executives and managers.

Framing the Old Fashioned Way

In our colloquial language we have a variety of ways to characterize a problem:

This is a Skills problem
Once we either train people or hire more competent staff the problem will fade away.
This is a Communications problem
Some people just do not understand. If we send them more detailed information their opposition or objectionable behavior will disappear.
This is a Performance problem
Some key staff are unmotivated. If they were more properly rewarded, their behavior would be more acceptable.
This is a Personality problem
Some people just cannot get along. If we choose the key players more carefully, they would be more compatible and the problem would go away.
This is a Political problem
Key players are motivated by personal advantage more than company benefit. We either have to confront them, reassert the corporate interest, or just throw up our hands and live with it.
This is a Structural problem
People are not correctly linked to the right people. We need to reorganize, or at least clarify the roles and responsibilities of the various players. And then the problem well fade away.

These common frames are seldom invoked explicitly; often they show up in a phrase or a casual reference. If a few people agree on the frame, their conversation quickly converges on a limited range of potential solutions. If most of us believe our project delivery is the result of "poor time management skills", we may start exploring various trainings or software packages that target that single understanding of the problem.

This colloquial notions of "problem types" is more about solutions than about the essential nature of the problem. To say that something is a "Structural problem" is actually a hint of the interventions I favor. It does not highlight the symptoms about which we should worry or their cost to the organization.

Framing Under Problem Solving 2.0

Under Problem Solving 2.0 the focus is on the features of the problem that cannot be ignored. Without any leaning to a particular solution, framing should sharpen our sense of the essential features of the situation.

The frame guides the initial exploration, the design of the problem solving strategy, and the outline of the eventual solution.

Why Framing is so important

Typing a problematic situation is the precursor to crafting a charter to the organization. A key role of leadership is to provide the direction to staff not only on what problems to solve, but the general guidelines for how to go about the task.

Each problem type requires a different charter, since it requires a different process in pursuit of a different solution.

If the leadership of the organization merely demands a solution, the ambiguity of the directive is likely to result in false starts and duplicated effort. Worse yet, it will drive staff to return frequently to the executive ranks for approval of intermediate steps. With today's concern with empowering the work force and increasing accountability, a weak charter accomplishes the exact reverse!