Written By

Brian Hauch



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May 23, 2018

Three Ways You're Thinking About the Problem Wrong

Written By

Brian Hauch

Problem Framing

“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns — there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

Donald Rumsfeld
United States Secretary of Defense (1975–1977, 2001–2006)


Innovative companies commonly find themselves caught between The Known and The Unknown. When in The Unknown, business as usual won’t move you forward and the more you learn the more unknowns appear. For example, “We thought the problem was the database but we realized it was really about the customer definition.” So, how does a company move from The Unknown into The Known, dividing signal from noise, and confidently walk toward true north of the problem?

A problem framing mindset is key to moving forward in The Unknown. Problem framing is not a framework but a mindset. A framework implies you can do it once and move on to the next item on the list. Problem framing is never done in innovation. The problem framing mindset increases problem understanding over time, helping you to know what to make and why to make it.

There is no single path through The Unknown because the future is driven by multiple variables — the user, the business, the technology. If the future was driven by a single variable then problem framing could be prescriptive (i.e., do X to solve Y). However, problem framing rationalizes multiple variables and describes the space between them—how the solution works for the user, the business and the technology. The innovation process is about prioritizing and orienting solutions within this space.

In innovation, we define The Knowns as the core of a business; this includes activities (i.e., marketing, administrative, etc), infrastructures (i.e. technology, value chain, etc.), and processes (i.e operations, lean manufacturing, etc). The repeatable quality of these activities allows businesses to scale by taking advantage of documented best practices and experienced employees. Innovation lives within thoughtful, competent employees who use the lens of their experience to solve problems.

However, sometimes business is confronted by The Unknowns — things that do not fall neatly under the category of business as usual or typical cause and effect relationships. Unknowns might come from new entrants into a market that impact value propositions, customers finding substitutes because of problems the company was unaware of, or new technologies impacting how business gets done.

These Unknowns come in two flavors: Known Unknowns and Unknown Unknowns. Known Unknowns are the things we knew were going to happen at some point. For example, it is only a matter of time until manual data entry will become real-time data. What do we do then? Occasionally, Unknown Unknowns may also happen, for example when massive shifts involving new entrants, new substitutes, and new technologies occur at once. In either situation, innovation begins by looking into the unknown and framing the problem to get to its root. Problem framing is the first step of innovation.

1. You start by defining goals

Companies often start by defining goals to create clarity, alignment, and courage in the face of the unknowns: “We want to reinvent the industry by 2020,” or “We want to be #1 in North American sales.” Goals such as these are inspirational, and clarify expectations, but fail to explain how value will be created to get to that goal. While goals help companies figure out what they want to do, problem framing helps them figure out why and how they will do it.

Instead, inspiring questions should lead the innovation process by painting a picture of the future for both the business and the customer. Questions like “What will define the next generation of urban families?” or “What motivates our small business consumers?” look beyond current business activities, infrastructure, and processes and into the unknowns of what to make and why to make it through asking open questions.

Inspirational questions are not tactical questions with a solution baked in. It is easy to ask tactical questions when faced with the unknown. We might ask, “How can our website facilitate our reinvention?” or “How can we extend our product lines into new markets?” Tactical questions assume that the website or the product lines are the starting points, the barriers, or the methods for creating new value. However, tactical questions such as these jump to solutions without fully understanding the problem. Jumping to solutions prevents many inspiring goals from becoming a reality — they leave companies a small, confining box to create new value.

2. The problem you defined is actually a symptom

It is easy for symptoms to become the lens through which innovators view a problem. An example of a symptom might be, “We are losing market share rapidly.” Focusing on this symptom may lead to the problem being framed as, “How do we regain market share?” The belief is that if we address the symptom, we are addressing the root problem. However, this can lead us back into that confining box. At this moment it is essential to ask ourselves: are we defining the problem too narrowly?

Creating a solution based on a symptom while ignoring the root problem inevitably enables the problem to resurface elsewhere. Companies have many interconnected internal and external touchpoints, which means that internal problems can manifest themselves externally. For example, outdated internal technology systems are likely to create symptoms felt externally in customer service or product experiences. One way to reframe narrow problem definition is by asking, “What experience do we want to create?” and “What information should we have to create that experience?”

Symptoms are painful, which means they become the most tangible representation of the problem. This makes it easy to get alignment on the symptoms, but challenging to gain alignment on problems. It is critical to separate the symptoms from the problem during the problem-framing process.

3. You jump to a solution too quickly

All innovation concepts start as generalized, foggy notions about what could be done to solve a problem. Once we see the first glimpse of a solution, it is important not to jump straight from a general understanding of the problem to a specific solution. The solution is a reflection of our understanding of the problem. Moreover, learning about the reality and context of a problem allows us to move from generalized problems to more nuanced problem framing. In other words, generalizations will cause innovators to fall short of achieving comprehensive solutions to specific needs.

An example of a general problem frame can be felt in digital experiences. For example, “We have customers that request 10 new features to our app. So, let us add all these features to improve the experience.” However, is that improving the experience? Did we create depth in understanding the problem? If all we have is a generalized understanding of the digital experience, there will be no way to discern what feature is adding value versus complexity.

If we add more depth to the problem frame, we can add more clarity to what we make that allows for more focused decision-making.

Bridging the gap with problem framing

The discipline of problem framing is not a formula that is applied only once at the beginning of a project. It is a set of guiding principles and mindsets that allow innovators to incrementally bridge the gap between The Known and The Unknown. As problems become clear through iteratively framing the problem, it becomes easier to move forward with confidence. It’s a practice we bring to every service area of OST.

A problem framing mindset encourages asking inspiring questions at the right time, preventing symptoms from narrowly defining the problem, and avoiding decisions based on generalizations. If problems are only viewed through business goals, symptoms, and generalizations, the resulting innovations will have a false sense of direction. Applying problem framing principles will help innovators avoid this fate and to successfully navigate The Unknowns and create new Knowns.



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About the Author

Brian balances the practical demands of business with the investigative nature of design. He guides design through the complexities of user needs, market conditions, and business objectives.
Brian has deep expertise in contract furnishing and manufacturing industries. Leading design research, design strategy, and experience design.
Brian earned a Masters in Design Methods from the Institute of Design, served on the board of the Design Thinking Initiative at GVSU and lectured on using narrative for innovation. As a Creative Director, his work is in the AIGA Design Archives at the Denver Art Museum.