What is the Problem Your Solution is Solving?

Upon hearing about an issue of some sort, most people, myself included, jump into problem solving mode almost immediately. We hear one rendition of the issue from one source and we immediately synthesize an elegant solution and mobilize an impressive set of resources conquer it.

However, more often than not, we are attempting to solve the wrong problem.

Slow Elevator Problem

There is an interesting story of an office building owner who is dealing with an overwhelming number of complaints of slow elevator service. People are waiting so long for the elevator that they are beginning to break lease agreements and move out of the building.

The owner has many options to fix this seemingly slow elevator issue. For example, he could:

  • upgrade the elevator to the newest and fastest model
  • Install an additional elevator
  • stagger break times for the staff in the building so not everyone is using the elevators at once
  • install advanced software algorithms to improve elevator efficiencies

So, what did he do?

He installed mirrors next to the elevator! That solved the slow elevator problem! People tend to lose track of time when they are able to look at themselves in a mirror!

As Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg illustrates in his HBR article, “Are You Solving the Right Problems”, looking for the root cause of an issue can still point us in the wrong direction. He suggests that we reframe the problem to see if there is a better one to solve!

So how do you reframe a problem?

7 Ways to Reframe a Problem

Wedell-Wedellsborg suggests using one or all of the following techniques to reframe an issue and arrive at an elegant solution.

  1. Establish legitimacy – show the group of people you are working with the value behind reframing a problem. Use examples like the elevator one above to illustrate reframing.
  2. Bring outsiders into the discussion – getting an outside perspective can be invaluable in reframing a issue. Look for people who;
    • Understand your business but are not part of it
    • Are willing to speak freely
    • Provide observations about the issue but are not actively trying to solve it for you
  3. Get peoples definitions in writing – ask each stakeholder to describe the problem in a few sentences. Collect these statements and see how the framing of the issue differs between the stakeholders. Put these statements onto flip charts in a meeting format (without identifying the authors) so everyone in the group can see the wide range of perspectives. This will generate many ideas and discussions.
  4. Ask what’s missing – stay at 10,000 feet and zoom out even further. Ask the stakeholders what is missing from the issue definition.
  5. Consider multiple categories – ask the stakeholders to identify the specific category of problem that they think they are facing. The range of responses can help to reframe the problem at hand.
  6. Analyze positive exceptions – explore the instances when this same problem did not occur. What was different about that situation and why did the problem not occur? This will uncover hidden factors that the group may have missed.
  7. Question the objective – determine the objectives of the stakeholders and begin challenging these objectives.

Take Action

It takes time, effort, and practice to properly define and reframe problems. If you are facing a big problem in your business, take some time to reframe it and see what solutions you come up with!

Also, take a look at these related articles on problem solving:


We are built to conquer environment, solve problems, achieve goals, and we find no real satisfaction or happiness in life without obstacles to conquer and goals to achieve.” Maxwell Maltz


What is your experience with reframing problems? Leave your comments below!


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