What is Problem Framing?

February 22, 2023
Dana Vetan

If you're new to Problem Framing, this article serves as an essential guide. It offers insights into when it's best to conduct a Problem Framing workshop, particularly with key decision-makers involved.

What is Problem Framing?

Problem Framing is a critical method within design thinking, aimed at comprehensively understanding, defining, and prioritizing complex business issues. It's a tool that aids in decision-making, beneficial to everyone from entry-level managers to senior executives.

In the context of our innovation projects, here at Design Sprint Academy, we like to define it as:

Problem Framing is a strategic workshop designed to guide teams in understanding, defining, and prioritizing complex business problems based on data and customer insights.

What Problem Framing is not?

  • Problem Framing is not a problem-solving method.
  • Problem Framing is not an ideation or brainstorming session.
  • Nor is it an approach to be used for simple, obvious problems for which solutions already exist.
  • Problem Framing is not a one-time activity; it may need revisiting as understanding evolves.
  • Problem Framing does not prioritize business needs over user needs; it seeks a balance.

The Essence of Problem Framing

In today's business landscape, problems are often multifaceted and elusive. Framing a problem effectively helps in structuring our thought process, especially when faced with ambiguous situations where solutions aren't immediately clear. Think of framing as a lens that helps us view problems in a specific context. Framing is also about breaking down a complex challenge into smaller, manageable chunks.

When is Problem Framing Most Effective?

Business is inherently complex and unpredictable. As contexts shift, new players enter, and strategies evolve, traditional problem-solving methods may fall short. This is where Problem Framing becomes essential. It's particularly useful in scenarios where:

  • The business issue is not well-defined.
  • Conventional problem-solving approaches are ineffective.
  • There's a need to explore new directions or opportunities.
  • Multiple stakeholders are involved, leading to discord or stagnation.

Types of problems

Target-Based Problems: These are forward-looking problems where the organization sets a new goal or standard that is beyond current capabilities. Solving these problems requires developing new methods or processes to achieve the desired target.

Innovative Problems: These involve creating completely new solutions or approaches where none currently exist. They are often encountered in product development, new process design, or when entering new markets.

Here are concrete scenarios where Problem Framing helps understand and better define these types of problems:

Identifying New Market Opportunities

Through Problem Framing, you can uncover untapped or emerging markets, allowing you to broaden your reach and increase your market share.

Refining Your Product or Service

This approach aids in aligning your product or service more closely with the evolving needs and preferences of your customers, ensuring continued relevance and value.

Strengthening Customer Relationships:

By understanding the challenges and expectations of your customers better, Problem Framing enables you to forge deeper, more meaningful relationships with them, which is crucial for long-term success.

Developing a More Effective Marketing Strategy

Problem Framing helps in identifying the most resonant messaging and channels for your marketing efforts, ensuring that your strategies are targeted and impactful.

The Benefits of Problem Framing

Investing time in properly defining a problem can significantly enhance the chances of successful outcomes. It’s about identifying the right problems and posing the right questions. Problem Framing helps in:

  • Determining the scope of your project.
  • Enhancing team and stakeholder engagement.
  • Unveiling the value of potential outcomes.

Why Do Teams Often Skip Problem Framing?

Despite its benefits, many skip the framing stage, rushing to solutions. Common reasons include:

“We already know what the problem is.”

— in most cases, teams just want to eliminate the “symptom” or the obvious pain point.

“It’s uncomfortable.”

— understanding the root cause of a problem and spending a lot of time in an ambiguous space is unpleasant; it requires discipline, and we’re not trained to do that. We’re trained to solve a problem as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

“It’s hard work, and it takes time.”

— finding insights and perspectives that make us look at the same issue in a different light is exhausting and extremely difficult. We must question our beliefs and be willing to listen to the “other side.”

Who Should Be Involved?

For effective Problem Framing, the composition of the team is crucial. It typically includes:

  • Decision-Makers: This group consists of business leaders and executives whose roles involve significant influence and authority. They bring a broad understanding of the company and industry, ensuring that discussions align with the organization's overall goals.
  • Experts and Frontline Employees: Inclusion of those who are directly affected by the problem, as well as experts in the relevant fields, is essential. Their insights help uncover the root causes and what truly matters in the situation.
  • The Facilitator: A pivotal role in Problem Framing is the Facilitator, who guides the team through the process from initial misalignment to clarity. This role could be played by an Innovation Manager, Product Manager, Business Consultant, Agile Coach, Innovation Consultant, or UX Designer. The key qualifications for a Facilitator are robust facilitation skills and a thorough understanding of the Problem Framing process. Their responsibility is to navigate the team through the workshop's various phases, ensuring productive and focused discussions, and helping the team to converge on a clear and actionable problem statement.

In practice, a well-chosen Facilitator can significantly enhance the effectiveness of a Problem Framing workshop. By skillfully steering conversations, they help in synthesizing diverse perspectives and insights, ensuring that all voices are heard and considered. This is particularly important in complex scenarios where multiple stakeholders are involved, each with their own viewpoints and priorities.

The composition of this team, with its diverse perspectives and roles, is critical in tackling the challenges from multiple angles, ensuring a holistic approach to Problem Framing

Example from Practice:

In a project with a large manufacturing company, we formed a diverse Problem Framing team. This team included high-level roles such as the Senior VP of Sales, Commercial Systems Manager, and the Head of People and Culture, along with other key figures like the IT Program Manager, Director of Finance and Planning, and the Manager of Budgeting and Reporting. Such a team, with its varied perspectives – from organizational culture to budgeting, from sales to IT infrastructure – was crucial in addressing the challenges from multiple angles.

Their collective expertise, however, was complemented by including feedback from departments and business units directly impacted by the problem. This approach ensured a well-rounded view of the issues at hand, vital for effective Problem Framing.

Problem Framing Steps

The process of Problem Framing is more intuitive than scientific. Here are four key steps:

  1. Business Context: This step involves understanding the problem within its broader context. It's crucial to recognize how different elements and factors interconnect in the system. By doing so, the team gains a deeper insight into the complexity and nuances of the problem, ensuring that no critical aspects are overlooked.
  2. Business Need: In this phase, the focus is on aligning the problem with the organization's strategic objectives. It requires understanding the stakeholders' priorities and what they aim to achieve. This step ensures that the problem-solving efforts are not only relevant but also contribute to the overarching goals of the business.
  3. Customer Perspective: Here, the aim is to build a comprehensive understanding of the customer or end-user. This involves engaging with research, interpreting data, and empathizing with the customer's needs and experiences. This step is crucial for ensuring that the solutions developed are genuinely user-centric and address real needs.
  4. Problem Statement (find the opportunity and commit): The final step is to articulate a clear and concise Problem Statement. This involves synthesizing the insights gained from the previous steps and identifying the core opportunities worth pursuing. A well-defined Problem Statement acts as a guide for the subsequent problem-solving process, ensuring that efforts are focused and aligned with the identified needs and business objectives.

How do you start with Problem Framing

Your Problem Framing journey can begin with tools like the Problem Framing Canvas. This tool helps in gaining a holistic understanding of the problem, considering various perspectives and insights.
Then you could use our Problem Statement Workshop to start drafting a problem statement together with your stakeholders.

Tools to Aid Facilitators

There are numerous tools and methods to assist in Problem Framing. It’s important to be adaptable and responsive to emerging insights and changing scenarios. Tools should align with your specific goals and outcomes. Here some of the tools we use:

  • Product development lifecycle map
  • Stakeholder mapping
  • 2x2 matrix
  • SWOT
  • HMWs (How Might We)
  • The 4 WHYs
  • Problem Statements
  • The Reframing Matrix
  • Service Blueprints
  • Customer Journey Maps
  • Spacial Maps and Ecosystem Maps
  • Experience Maps
  • The Fishbone diagram
  • Jobs to be Done
  • Etc.

Learning and Applying Problem Framing

To deepen your understanding and application of Problem Framing, consider engaging in workshops and training programs. These can provide practical insights and help integrate Problem Framing into your decision-making and innovation processes. Learn more about our corporate training programs here.