Problem Framing & Reframing
#235 How Does This Qualify as a Problem?

If we think something is a problem, then it is a problem. If I train myself to see situations as problems, how many opportunities might I miss?

Seeing a situation more objectively offers more optionality. In truth, problems are not objective, hard things; they are constructs. That does not mean that challenges themselves are not concrete or the effects cannot be devastating. It also does not mean we can think them away.

The question really is: How can we create the best thinking environment so that we minimise the potential downsides and maximise the potential upsides?

For instance, climate change, regardless of how one frames it, has undeniable impacts on sea levels, weather patterns and biodiversity. And yet, even allowing for this, whilst some species are going extinct and millions of people are losing their homes and livelihoods to climate change, it is a windfall for others.

We would ideally go after the root causes, but they may not be within our control. The next best outcome is perhaps to turn what is presented as a problem into an opportunity (at least in part). That is why I actively resist the framing of something as a problem, thereby reversing the burden of proof. Instead of writing a problem statement, consider writing an opportunity statement.

    Instant Decision-Making

    If you need an immediate decision-making matrix to minimise harm whilst you assess matters more fully, this may be helpful:

    • What is going on?
    • Why should I care?
    • Can I do anything about this?
    • Where now?

    Deep Decision-Making

    • No framework will work for every decision-making situation.
    • I see decisions as sitting along a spectrum from simple to complex. The simplicity or complexity relates not to the challenge itself but rather to the thinking and decision-making frameworks needed to obtain the optimal outcome.
    • For simple low-impact challenges with few stakeholders, tired and trusted heuristics may be the first port of call.
    • For truly complex high-impact challenges, it is probably worth developing an ad hoc decision-making framework designed specifically for that challenge.
    • For those situations in-between, it can be helpful to have some form of thinking framework such as the one offered here. The six questions presented below imply a linearity to the process that is not in truth intended. They are meant to serve as signposts as to the thinking hats you might wear.

    These six questions are:

    1. Can this situation be ignored?
    2. If not, how exactly does it affect me (us)?
    3. What might a resolution look like?
    4. What options do I (we) have?
    5. Who or what might be able to help?
    6. What is the next step?

    1. Can This Situation be Ignored?

    This is the “What is going on?“, “Why should I care?” and “Can I do anything about this?” step.

    Firstly, what exactly is going on?
    • There are facts and there are emotions. What do I know and what do I feel about this?
    • Many problems are framed in emotional terms. That is both human and potentially unhelpful because you may feel drawn into a situation where the facts do not warrant it: “I cannot believe this has happened to me. It is so annoying!”
    • Well, what exactly has happened? Describe the situation as factually as possible.
    • Then become curious about the emotional response. What has triggered it?
    Secondly, if a situation does not affect you or yours then why get involved?
    • We cannot solve or resolve everything. We need to pick our battles so to speak and focus on the truly important ones.
    • And yet it is not always that simple. There may well be a whole set of moral or ethical situations where you feel obligated to do something even though you are not directly affected. This is the case of the biblical Good Samaritan. It is nevertheless valid to ask this question and not to judge ourselves for asking.
      Thirdly, assuming I feel this cannot be ignored, is there anything I can actually do? Even indirectly?
      • The Stoics, an ancient Greek school of philosophy, would urge us to think of the world in terms of what is within our control and what is not within our control.
      • If it is not within our control, meaning we cannot do anything about it, then it is not something to worry about. Our only choice is to adapt.
      • For the Stoics, peace of mind comes from focusing only on what we can control and letting go of the rest. This approach can also help us clearly identify where our energies are best spent.
        Fourthly, should this situation be ignored?
        • This may not be a problem for you, but it may present an opportunity.
        • Likewise, whilst an issue might not have short-term impact, it may lead to problems down the line so may need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

          Climate change: Can this situation be ignored?

          We will use the example of climate change throughout to bring the questions to life.

          • What is going on? The planet is heating at a rate that is unprecedented since the advent of human civilisation. The science points to manmade causes.
          • Why get involved? While the immediate impacts may not affect everyone equally, the long-term consequences are global as weather events fail to respect national boundaries. Climate migration will also bring the issue to areas that escape the worst direct impact. The ethical dimension also calls for action even if not directly impacted just yet.
          • Can I do anything? Yes. Anyone with a Western carbon footprint can take a whole series of practical steps. We can also pressure politicians to do more.

          2. How Exactly Does It Affect Me (Us)?

          Firstly, who is affected?
          • It is important to get a sense for the scope of the problem.
          • You may well find that this is something that affects a broad class of people so it may be possible to work together to get a quicker or more beneficial outcome.
          • Narrowly defining this as a “me” or small “us” problem ignores a whole series of possibilities.
          Secondly, how are they affected?

          Look at this in detail.

          • Are there physical consequences?
          • Material?
          • Psychological?
          • Social?
          Thirdly, what is the cost of paying attention to this problem?
          • By paying attention to this, we are ignoring other problems and opportunities. Might there be an opportunity cost to that?
          • In essence, is it worth the effort? Is it truly our priority?
            Climate change: How exactly does it affect me (us)?
            • Who is affected? This is a global issue so everyone is affected although some are much more affected than others.
            • How are they affected? Direct effects include extreme weather conditions and health issues. Indirectly, it affects economies, social structures and future generations.
            • What is the cost of paying attention to this problem?
              • This remains a major challenge for policymakers.
              • For example, rapidly increasing carbon taxes and decarbonizing our economies at any cost may be what the science would advise but could result in a backlash at the ballot box.
              • Therefore, whilst it is a priority in the long-term, it is less so in the short-term as people address more immediate concerns.
              • This goes to show how the same objective situation can affect people differently depending on the roles they play in society and the timeframes they consider.

            3. What Might a Resolution Look Like?

            This is about strategizing. About creating a vision. Not worrying about the tactics – the hows – just yet.

            In short: What will the world look like when this problem is resolved?

            It may or may not be helpful to look back and ask:

            • What was the world like before the problem arose? What might we learn? What have we forgotten?
            • How did we get into this state of affairs?
            • Were we happy with the status quo?
            • Is it feasible to go back there?

            And to look forward and ask:

            • What if this were an opportunity?
            • What would need to be true for this to represent an opportunity?
            • What might we be missing? What if…..?

            It is a perfect opportunity to explore the whole range of brainstorming techniques in your arsenal:

            • What ifs….?: These are simply questions to explore potential solutions or alternatives. This technique can help break through fixed ways of thinking and stimulate new ideas and possibility.
            • What might we….?: This questioning technique is all about open-ended questions to imagine what might be possible.
            • The 5 Whys: To get to the root cause of a problem.
            Climate change: What might a resolution look like?
            • This is one set of problems to which there are countless solutions. It is all about implementation.
            • Solutions range from individual lifestyle changes to policy reforms and technological advancements in clean energy.
            • Unfortunately, there is no going back. The change will be irreversible. The first stage of resolution lies in not making matters worse. This means halting the temperature increases whilst also adapting insofar as necessary. That is the platform on which future remediation will be built.
            • This highlights how important it is to be realistic about a problem. We cannot reverse this so no energy should be spent talking about it. Remediation is critical but is now the time when the only goal that matters is dramatically reducing emissions? There is always a risk of spreading resources too thinly.

            4. What Options Do I (We) Have?

            This is where we get tactical. We have a clear vision of what a resolution looks like. We may well have reframed this in terms of opportunities or at least partial opportunities (silver linings).

            In short: What are our options? What is feasible?

            This needs to be considered in tandem with the next question because we may not have the resources or expertise to address the problem alone, but we may be able to partner with people who can.

            Additional Points to Consider

            There are a good number of additional points that might be taken on board at this stage:

            • Stakeholders:
              • Who needs to be involved in these conversations?
              • Who will be important in implementing any solution?
            • Available resources:
              • Resources are by definition limited. How then might they be best allocated?
            • Iterative approach:
              • Steps 3, 4 and 5 are highly iterative. You may well have a sense of the strategy but when you start working on tactics you may find some refinements are advisable.
              • Do not think of this as a straight line but more as a loop where feedback plays an absolutely critical part.
            • Risk assessment:
              • What risks are posed by each option? Risks should not be defined narrowly in financial or operational terms but should also include reputational, ethical or indeed existential risks.
              • Likelihood versus impact? A high impact risk, even if unlikely, may deserve attention.
              • Remember, risk cannot be measured because we cannot predict the future. Thus, how are we relying on risk measurements that may historically accurate, but fantasy as regards the future?
            • Timeframes and urgency:
              • How quickly does this need to be done?
              • Who is setting the pace on this?
              • How might we make extra time?
              • What are the short-term versus long-term considerations?
            • Ethics:
              • Are the suggested options ethical?
              • What would make an option ethical or unethical?
            • External factors (externalities in the jargon):
              • How might external variables like market conditions, legal regulations or socio-cultural influences affect the possible options or opportunities?
            Climate change: What options do I (we) have?

            • Individuals can reduce their carbon footprint, vote for climate-friendly policies or engage in climate activism.
            • Companies can do much more but do have to bring along shareholders and stakeholders.
            • Governments. It is always interesting when political leaders follow public sentiment. I would urge them to ask: How might we lead on this? How might we address concerns?

            5. Who or What Might Be Able to Help?

            This is a really simple but important step.

            It invites us to take time to reflect on everything we have learned and to ask, do we have to do this alone?

            • Who might be willing to help?
            • What else might we do that would help?

            As indicated above, questions 3, 4 and 5 are iterative, meaning that an answer to this question may expand the options available and ultimately result in the strategy being revised.

            Climate change: Who or what might be able to help?
            • Various stakeholders from governments to NGOs and businesses have roles to play in solving this problem.
            • The global capitalist system may have been at the root of much of the climate ills over the past century, but it could play a major role in investing in a green future. Governments might entice capital to flow into green investments by altering tax codes accordingly.
            • This is a case of harnessing people who may or may not care about the problem and is an important lesson.

            6. What Is the Next Step?

            Start close in,
            don’t take the second step
            or the third,
            start with the first
            close in,
            the step
            you don’t want to take.

            From “Start Close In” by David Whyte ©.

            In simple terms: “Where now?”

            After all the strategizing and planning, it boils down to taking that first concrete step.

            Want to Read More Around this Topic?

            Frame Innovation: Create New Thinking by Design by Kees Dorst (link to The author introduces a new approach to solving problems by looking at them from different angles. By using real-world examples, he illustrates how reframing a problem can lead to more innovative solutions.

            Nurturing Curiosity – Daily Practice: This is part of the Nurturing Curiosity series of tools, insights and questions designed to help nurture curiosity as part of our daily practice. In point of fact, every interaction we have is an opportunity to question what we are observing and how we and others are seeing the world. I truly apply this framework each and every day. Life everyone, a stream of “problems” float into my world. I’m told I should be concerned (or indeed worried) about this and that. My response: So, how is this a problem? There are so many possible problems that my sense is that we truly need to focus on the key ones for us. The ones that affect our worlds. The ones we can do something about and where we will have the most impact.

            About Tom O’Leary

            I coach, mentor and teach leaders who are shaping a brighter future.

            Leadership can be lonely, the challenges daunting, and the workload overwhelming. I help leaders feel heard, gain clarity, take action, build confidence and thrive! Leaders matter. Their work matters. We need them at their best!

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