Julien Florkin Business Strategy Technology

Problem Framing: 7 Tools for Amazing Successes

"Brainstorming session with 'Problem Framing' phrase at the center, in a modern office. A South Asian woman writes on a whiteboard, a Black man points at a note, a Caucasian woman holds a laptop, and a Hispanic man takes notes on a tablet. The room overlooks a cityscape."
Unlock the power of effective problem framing. Dive into its core, grasp the process, and harness this key to success.
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Picture this: you’re in a labyrinth, staring at a confusing tangle of pathways, twists, and turns. It’s bewildering, even a tad frightening, and you’re unsure which way to go. But, wait! What’s that you see in your hand? It’s a map! And with it, you’re no longer lost, but instead confidently navigating the complexities, one stride at a time.

That map, my friends, symbolizes the concept of ‘problem framing‘. Like a trusty guide, it’s here to help you decipher complexities, understand the landscape of your problems, and ultimately navigate towards a solution. In fact, it can be your secret weapon in decision-making, and a powerhouse when it comes to innovation.

But what exactly is this problem framing? Why is it so crucial in today’s world? How can it enhance your decision-making capabilities and drive innovation? Don’t worry; we’ve got you covered! By the time you finish reading this article, you’ll not only understand problem framing but will also be able to apply it in your daily life.

Welcome aboard the problem-framing express, where we’ll be journeying through its history, the essential components, the process, and the myriad benefits it offers. We’ll also showcase some powerful real-life examples and share a selection of practical tools and techniques to aid you in your problem-framing adventures.

"Artistic representation of problem framing in a business setting, with a diverse team discussing around a central canvas."
“A dynamic corporate brainstorming session focusing on problem framing, featuring a diverse professional team and a central artistic canvas.”

So fasten your seat belts and brace yourself for an enlightening ride into the world of problem framing!

The Concept of Problem Framing

Imagine you’re a detective. A problem is a lot like a mystery you need to solve. Now, you could dive right into it, chasing down every lead or jumping at the first possible solution. But like a seasoned sleuth, you know better. Before you make a move, you first need to frame the problem—like setting up a picture in its frame—to ensure you have a clear view of the big picture.

This is the essence of problem framing. It’s not just about identifying the issue; it’s about understanding the entire context around it. It’s about stepping back and asking questions: “What’s really going on here?” “Why is this happening?” “How is it affecting other things?” and “What could be the possible ripple effects?”

The concept of problem framing hails from the broader discipline of decision sciences and cognitive psychology, gaining prominence around the mid-20th century. Since then, it has been recognized as a vital step in the decision-making process. But problem framing isn’t just a fancy term used by scientists and academics. It’s a practical, hands-on approach used by innovators, entrepreneurs, educators, designers, and even everyday folks like you and me!

What sets problem framing apart from other decision-making models is that it doesn’t jump into problem-solving. Instead, it creates a ‘frame,’ a mental model that allows us to examine the problem from various perspectives. This process often reveals hidden aspects, and it helps us understand the potential implications of different solutions. In other words, problem framing helps us avoid the pitfall of tunnel vision, ensuring we make well-rounded, informed decisions.

In the world of innovation, problem framing is nothing short of a game-changer. It shifts the focus from “What can we create?” to “What problem should we solve?” and “How should we solve it?”. It’s an approach that has fueled countless breakthroughs and continues to drive the frontier of innovation.

"Illustration of a diverse group engaged in a problem framing workshop, writing on a whiteboard with 'Problem Framing' written in the center."
“A productive workshop scene with a team collaboratively framing problems, centered around a whiteboard with ‘Problem Framing’ prominently displayed.”

In essence, problem framing is all about understanding and defining a problem before trying to solve it. And while it might sound simple, trust me—this is one powerful tool that can dramatically change the outcomes of your decision-making and innovation efforts. So, ready to dig deeper and master this critical skill? Let’s march on!

Components of Problem Framing

Let’s go back to our sandwich metaphor, but this time, let’s make it a club sandwich. Why? Because the process of problem framing has more layers than a simple sandwich, each adding depth and richness to the overall flavor. Each of these ‘layers’ or components contributes to forming a comprehensive, detailed frame around your problem, just like how each ingredient of a club sandwich contributes to its overall deliciousness.

  1. Understanding the Situation: This is the bread of our club sandwich—the base of the problem framing. You start by gaining a deep, thorough understanding of the situation you’re dealing with. It’s about examining the problem and the context in which it exists. You ask questions, gather data, identify key players, analyze trends and patterns, and dissect the problem down to its core. It’s about knowing your problem inside and out before you take any further steps.
  2. Identifying and Exploring Alternatives: Next, we layer on the ham, turkey, bacon, or your protein of choice. This represents the process of identifying and exploring alternatives. In other words, you start considering all possible ways to tackle your problem. No idea is too outlandish or too conservative at this stage. It’s all about brainstorming and generating as many potential solutions as possible.
  3. Making Assumptions and Predicting Outcomes: Now come the cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and other condiments—these represent the process of making assumptions and predicting outcomes. For each alternative you’ve identified, you’ll need to make certain assumptions about its impact. What will likely happen if you choose this path? What are the potential benefits and drawbacks? How might it affect other aspects of the situation?
  4. Decision Making and Action: Finally, the top slice of bread completes our sandwich, symbolizing the decision-making and action stage. With your frame set up and a clear understanding of the potential consequences, you’re now ready to make a decision. Choose the best solution based on your analysis, and then take action to implement it.

Just like making a club sandwich involves careful selection and layering of ingredients, problem framing is a systematic process that helps you thoroughly understand, explore, and decide on the best course of action. By following these components, you’ll be able to make informed decisions that take into account the complexity and uniqueness of your specific problem. So, next time you face a tricky problem, remember the club sandwich, and frame your problem well!

The Process of Problem Framing

Navigating the process of problem framing is a bit like embarking on an exciting journey—it has a start, a journey full of exploration, and an end with a reward. To ensure we have a smooth and successful voyage, let’s break down the step-by-step process of problem framing.

Step 1: Understanding the Situation This is where you dive headfirst into the sea of details. Put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and begin investigating. Look at the problem from every angle, delve into the complexities, ask the difficult questions, and gather as much information as you can. Remember, knowledge is power, and the more you understand the situation, the better you’ll be able to frame the problem.

Step 2: Identifying and Exploring Alternatives Now that you’ve got a good grasp on the situation, it’s time to brainstorm. This is the stage where creativity comes into play. Generate a list of all possible alternatives. Don’t limit yourself—remember, there’s no such thing as a bad idea during a brainstorming session. The more alternatives you identify, the more options you’ll have when it comes to solving the problem.

Step 3: Making Assumptions and Predicting Outcomes Next, it’s time to weigh your options. Take each alternative and scrutinize it carefully. Make assumptions about what might happen if that particular alternative is chosen. What are the potential outcomes? Are there any potential downsides or risks? This step is all about analysis and prediction, and it plays a vital role in informing your final decision.

Step 4: Decision Making and Action You’ve explored the terrain, considered your options, and now it’s time to choose your path. Based on your deep understanding of the problem and the careful examination of alternatives, make a decision. But don’t stop there. A decision without action is like a car without fuel. Implement your chosen solution and monitor the results.

Throughout this process, remember that problem framing isn’t a rigid, one-size-fits-all kind of approach. It’s flexible and adaptable. Sometimes, you might need to circle back to a previous step. Other times, you might need to revise your frame as you gain new insights or information. It’s all part of the journey.

Also, keep an eye out for common mistakes. For instance, don’t jump to conclusions too early or base your decision on insufficient information. Don’t let personal biases cloud your judgment. And most importantly, remember that problem framing is not about finding a quick fix—it’s about understanding the problem thoroughly, exploring all possible alternatives, and making a well-informed, effective decision. So, happy framing!

Benefits of Effective Problem Framing

You might be wondering, “Why should I take the time to go through the problem framing process? What’s in it for me?” Well, let me assure you, problem framing isn’t just some time-consuming exercise. It’s a highly beneficial practice that can revolutionize the way you approach problems. Let’s unpack the treasure chest of benefits that effective problem framing brings to the table.

1. Enhanced Decision-Making: At its core, problem framing is a decision-making tool. By understanding the problem thoroughly and considering all possible alternatives, you’re able to make well-informed decisions. It’s like upgrading from a coin toss to a strategic chess move—your decisions are no longer based on chance or gut feelings but on solid understanding and careful consideration.

2. Encourages Innovation: Problem framing is an innovation powerhouse. It forces you to think outside the box and explore all possible solutions, thereby fostering creativity and innovation. It’s a tool that can turn ‘business as usual’ into ‘business extraordinary’!

3. Reduces Risks: By considering all possible outcomes and implications of your decisions, problem framing helps you to anticipate and mitigate risks. It’s like having a safety net—while you can’t eliminate risks entirely, you can significantly reduce them.

4. Increases Efficiency: Problem framing helps you to focus your resources (time, money, energy) on the most promising solutions. Instead of trying to tackle every aspect of the problem at once, you can prioritize and concentrate on the most impactful areas. This can significantly increase your efficiency and productivity.

5. Fosters Collaboration: Problem framing is a team sport. It encourages diverse viewpoints and promotes collaboration. By involving different stakeholders in the problem framing process, you can benefit from a wide range of perspectives, fostering a more inclusive and holistic approach to problem-solving.

6. Builds Confidence: Lastly, effective problem framing can boost your confidence. When you understand a problem deeply and know you’ve considered all possible alternatives, you can make decisions with a greater sense of certainty and conviction.

In short, problem framing is like a Swiss Army knife for problem-solving. It enhances your decision-making, encourages innovation, reduces risks, increases efficiency, fosters collaboration, and boosts your confidence. So, whether you’re an entrepreneur navigating the uncertainties of the business world, a student dealing with academic challenges, or just someone trying to make better decisions in your daily life, problem framing can be a game-changer!

Tools and Techniques for Effective Problem Framing

Embarking on the problem framing journey without the right tools would be like trying to build a house without a hammer and nails. Thankfully, there are several practical tools and techniques available to facilitate effective problem framing. Let’s delve into some of the most commonly used ones.

1. The Five Whys: This technique, first developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used within Toyota Motor Corporation, involves asking ‘why’ five times to get to the root cause of a problem. Each answer forms the basis of the next question, drilling down to the core issue. It’s a simple but powerful tool for understanding the underlying reasons behind a problem.

2. SWOT Analysis: Standing for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, a SWOT analysis helps you examine all aspects of a problem, considering both internal and external factors. It provides a comprehensive view of the situation and can aid in identifying potential solutions.

3. Mind Mapping: This is a visual tool that helps you explore all dimensions of a problem. Start with the central problem and branch out with related aspects, issues, or potential solutions. This tool promotes creative thinking and provides a visual overview of the problem and its various components.

4. PESTEL Analysis: This tool is particularly useful for complex problems in a broader context. PESTEL stands for Political, Economic, Sociocultural, Technological, Environmental, and Legal. By analyzing these factors, you can gain a deep understanding of the external factors affecting your problem.

5. Brainstorming: This classic technique is all about generating as many ideas as possible. Encourage free thinking and withhold judgment during brainstorming sessions to promote creativity and discover unique solutions.

6. Role Playing: This technique involves stepping into the shoes of different stakeholders to understand their perspectives. It promotes empathy and can uncover aspects of the problem that you might not have considered otherwise.

7. Prototyping: For product-related problems, creating a physical or digital prototype can be an effective way to understand the problem better and explore potential solutions.

Using these tools and techniques can significantly enhance your problem framing process. They can help you understand the problem deeply, explore a wide range of solutions, and make well-informed decisions. So, equip yourself with these tools and dive into the fascinating world of problem framing!

Success Stories of Effective Problem Framing

It’s always encouraging to see how theoretical concepts can lead to real-world success. Let’s take a look at five instances where effective problem framing led to outstanding results.

1. Southwest Airlines – Redefining the Air Travel Market

Southwest Airlines faced a seemingly simple problem: How could they compete with major airlines? They re-framed the problem, asking instead: How can we provide an alternative to road and rail travel? This change in perspective shifted their focus from competing with other airlines to delivering high-frequency, short-route, and low-cost flights, effectively targeting customers who would have otherwise driven or taken the train. The result? Southwest Airlines became one of the most profitable airlines in the industry.

2. Toyota – Revolutionizing the Auto Industry with the Prius

When Toyota first considered entering the hybrid car market, they faced numerous challenges: high production costs, uncertain customer acceptance, and technical difficulties. Instead of asking how they could make a cheaper hybrid car, they reframed the problem to how they could create a car for the 21st century that addressed environmental concerns. This problem framing led to the creation of the Prius, which has been a major success and has contributed significantly to the mainstream acceptance of hybrid technology.

3. Airbnb – Transforming the Hospitality Industry

In the early days, Airbnb’s growth was stagnating. The problem seemed to be a lack of demand. However, upon closer examination, the founders discovered that the real issue was poor quality listings with unattractive photos. They reframed the problem from “How do we increase demand?” to “How do we improve the quality of our listings?” This led to the initiative of offering professional photography services to hosts, dramatically improving the quality of listings and thus, boosting demand.

4. Microsoft – Winning the Browser Wars

Back in the 1990s, Microsoft found itself losing ground to Netscape Navigator in the “browser wars.” Instead of asking how they could make a better browser, they reframed the problem as how they could tie web browsing into the overall Windows experience. This led to the development and integration of Internet Explorer within their Windows operating system, contributing significantly to Internet Explorer’s subsequent dominance.

5. Amazon – Reinventing Retail with Prime

Amazon initially faced a problem with cart abandonment due to shipping costs. Instead of asking how they could lower shipping costs, they reframed the problem to how they could offer a premium shopping experience. This led to the development of Amazon Prime, offering benefits such as free two-day shipping, streaming services, and more. This not only solved the shipping cost problem but also led to increased customer loyalty and spending.

These success stories show how effective problem framing can lead to innovative solutions and substantial business growth. By thoroughly understanding the problem and considering it from various angles, these companies were able to identify unique solutions and achieve remarkable success.

Personal Success Stories of Effective Problem Framing

Let’s explore how some well-known personalities used effective problem framing to overcome challenges and achieve remarkable success in their respective fields.

1. Elon Musk – Electric Vehicles and SpaceX

Elon Musk

When Elon Musk faced the challenge of promoting sustainable energy, he didn’t ask how to make people buy electric cars. Instead, he framed the problem as how to make electric vehicles as attractive as, or even more attractive than, traditional cars. This shift in perspective led to the creation of Tesla’s high-performance electric vehicles, reshaping the automotive industry. Similarly, when Musk faced the challenge of reducing space exploration costs, he reframed it as a problem of making rockets reusable, leading to breakthroughs in space technology with SpaceX.

2. Steve Jobs – Revolutionizing Consumer Electronics

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs faced the problem of creating a music device in an already saturated market. He reframed the problem to: How can we reinvent the way people listen to and carry their music? This problem framing led to the development of the iPod and iTunes, which completely transformed the music industry. Jobs used a similar approach in framing the problem for the development of the iPhone, which went on to revolutionize the smartphone industry.

3. Oprah Winfrey – Shaping Modern Day Television

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey, faced with the task of hosting a daytime talk show in a crowded market, reframed the problem from: How can we make a more entertaining talk show? to: How can we create a talk show that brings deeper, meaningful conversation to the forefront? This shift in perspective led to the creation of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which became a huge success and significantly influenced the format of many modern-day talk shows.

4. J.K. Rowling – Changing the Landscape of Children’s Literature

J.K. Rowling

When J.K. Rowling decided to write a children’s book, she didn’t ask herself how she could write a book children would enjoy. Instead, she framed the problem as: How can I write a book that both children and adults will find engaging? This reframing led to the development of the “Harry Potter” series, which appealed to a broad audience and became a worldwide literary phenomenon.

5. Mark Zuckerberg – Transforming Social Interaction

When Mark Zuckerberg faced the problem of improving social interaction among college students, he reframed the problem from: How can we improve communication among students? to: How can we create a virtual social environment that reflects real-world relationships? This problem framing led to the development of Facebook, which has dramatically transformed the way people interact worldwide.

These personalities, through effective problem framing, created revolutionary products and services, significantly impacting their respective fields and society at large. Their stories highlight the power of problem framing in driving innovation and achieving success.

The Future of Problem Solving

As we take a step into the future, we can’t help but wonder what the landscape of problem-solving will look like. How will the continued evolution of technology and our increasing understanding of human cognition shape our approach to challenges? Will problem framing continue to be relevant? While no one can predict the future with absolute certainty, we can make some educated guesses. So, let’s take a sneak peek into the crystal ball.

1. AI and Machine Learning

Artificial Intelligence
Help us frame problems more effectively by providing insights that might be difficult for humans to discern due to the sheer volume or complexity of data.

There’s no denying that Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) are changing the way we approach problem-solving. These technologies can process vast amounts of data, identify patterns, and make predictions. They can help us frame problems more effectively by providing insights that might be difficult for humans to discern due to the sheer volume or complexity of data. However, the role of human intuition, experience, and creativity in framing and interpreting the problem will remain irreplaceable.

2. Collaborative Problem Solving

As our world becomes more interconnected, the problems we face are increasingly complex, often transcending borders and disciplines. This will necessitate more collaborative problem solving, where individuals with diverse backgrounds and skills come together to frame and tackle problems. Tools and platforms that facilitate such collaboration will likely become more prominent.

3. Emphasis on Sustainability

With growing awareness of environmental issues and societal challenges, the future of problem-solving will likely see a greater emphasis on sustainability. We’ll need to frame problems in a way that not only considers the economic and practical aspects but also the environmental and social implications. The triple bottom line (people, planet, profit) will increasingly inform our problem framing and solving approaches.

4. Increased Use of Visual Tools

As we continue to acknowledge different learning and processing styles, visual tools for problem framing and solving will gain more traction. These tools can make the process more intuitive and inclusive, catering to those who think more effectively in images and diagrams.

5. Focus on Emotional Intelligence

Understanding the emotional aspects of a problem—how stakeholders feel, what their desires and fears are—will play a more significant role in problem framing. Tools and techniques that factor in emotional intelligence will likely be more prevalent in the future of problem-solving.

In essence, the future of problem-solving will be a blend of cutting-edge technology, collaborative and sustainable approaches, diverse methods catering to different cognitive styles, and a deeper understanding of human emotions. Problem framing, with its focus on comprehending the problem from various angles and perspectives, will continue to be a key aspect of this process, helping us navigate the challenges of the future more effectively.

Wrapping Up: The Power of Problem Framing in a Changing World

As we come full circle on our exploration of problem framing, it’s evident that this concept holds tremendous power in our approach to problem-solving. With its roots in our inherent cognitive abilities and its branches extending into various facets of our professional and personal lives, problem framing is a compass that guides us through the mazes of complex challenges we encounter.

We’ve unpacked the concept of problem framing, delving into its core components and the meticulous process that unfolds as we engage with it. We’ve looked through the lens of real-world examples, gleaning insights from corporate giants who have used effective problem framing to catalyze their unprecedented success. Simultaneously, we’ve seen how public figures, known for their ingenious ideas and groundbreaking contributions, have employed problem framing to trail-blaze in their respective fields.

We also uncovered a toolkit brimming with strategies and techniques that can aid us in our problem framing journey. From the age-old wisdom of the ‘Five Whys’ to the creative potential of mind mapping, we’ve seen how these tools, much like a blacksmith’s instruments, can shape our problems into manageable tasks, ready for us to tackle head-on.

As we venture into the future of problem-solving, we understand that it will be marked by cutting-edge technologies, an increased emphasis on sustainability, and the critical need for collaboration. Yet, amidst these evolving dynamics, the relevance of problem framing stands unwavering. Its role in helping us understand the real issue, exploring a multitude of solutions, and facilitating informed decision-making is undeniably crucial.

In conclusion, problem framing isn’t just an academic concept; it’s a practical tool, an art, and a science. It shapes our approach to challenges, molding our perspective and informing our actions. Whether we’re combating corporate crises, brainstorming for innovative solutions, or navigating our personal lives, mastering the art of problem framing equips us with a powerful ally in our pursuit of growth, success, and excellence. As we step into the future, let’s carry this compass with us, confident in the knowledge that no problem is insurmountable when framed correctly.


Key ConceptsDescription
Definition of Problem FramingUnderstanding problem framing as the process of defining and understanding a problem before attempting to solve it.
Importance in Decision MakingEmphasizing problem framing’s role in enhancing decision-making skills and leading to more innovative solutions.
Components of Problem FramingOutlining the essential steps: Understanding the situation, exploring alternatives, making assumptions, and decision making.
The Process of Problem FramingDetailing a step-by-step guide through understanding the situation, brainstorming, assessing outcomes, and implementing action.
Benefits of Effective Problem FramingHighlighting how problem framing leads to better decision-making, innovation, risk reduction, and efficiency.
Real-World Case StudiesDemonstrating problem framing’s effectiveness through success stories in various fields.
Tools and TechniquesDiscussing practical tools like the Five Whys, SWOT Analysis, and Mind Mapping that aid in problem framing.
Personal Success StoriesShowcasing how known personalities like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs effectively used problem framing.
ConclusionSummarizing the importance of problem framing and its role as a guiding tool in problem-solving across various scenarios.


What is problem framing?

Problem framing is the process of understanding and defining a problem before finding its solutions.

Why is problem framing important?

It helps in understanding the real issue at hand, leading to more effective solutions.

What are the components of problem framing?

Key components include problem statement, goals, context, and constraints.

Can problem framing be used in personal life?

Yes, problem framing is effective in personal decision-making and problem-solving.

What is a practical example of problem framing?

Southwest Airlines reframing their problem to target customers who would otherwise travel by car or train.

How does problem framing relate to business strategy?

It aids in making informed decisions, formulating strategies, and achieving business objectives.

How will AI affect problem framing in the future?

AI can provide insights from vast data, aiding in effective problem framing.

What’s an example of a problem framing tool?

‘Five Whys’ is a common tool used to identify the root cause of a problem.

Who has used problem framing successfully?

Notable figures like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs have used problem framing to drive innovation.

What is the future of problem-solving?

It will involve AI, collaboration, sustainability, diverse cognitive styles, and a deeper understanding of human emotions.

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