In a recent article, author Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg described a problem. There was a slow elevator in an apartment building, and tenants were complaining about it. The first reaction from the apartment manager was to get a new elevator—one that was faster with a stronger motor. Or, the manager suggested, instead put up a mirror by each elevator entrance. People get fascinated with looking at themselves and don’t notice the amount of time it takes the elevator to get to their floor. Certainly one option was much cheaper than the other, and it also looked at the problem in a different way. While the problem itself was a slow elevator, the solution required a reframing of the problem.

In this issue of Promotional Consultant Today, we share a few tips on reframing problems from Wedell-Wedellsborg’s article, “Are You Solving the Right Problems?” featured in

1. Establish legitimacy. When solving a problem within a group, especially in the workplace, Wedell-Wedellsborg says the first step is to establish legitimacy within the group so that all opinions are valued. Put a framework around this importance of re-framing. Do what the author did—share the elevator story. It’s a simple example that everyone can quickly understand and it sets the tone for how to reframe a problem for better results.

2. Bring outsiders into the discussion. Next, he suggests bringing in an outsider’s perspective in order to rethink a problem. He used the example of a company that felt like they needed an innovation framework. They tried rolling several out, but all failed. They brought in an outside consultant who pointed out that the problem wasn’t the innovation framework, it was lack of employee engagement.

This can be applied to your company as well. For example, if sales are down, perhaps the problem isn’t the sales talent itself, but lack of training or product knowledge.

3. Ask what’s missing. Wedell-Wedellsborg says that when faced with the description of a problem, people tend to delve into the details of what has been stated, paying less attention to what the description might be leaving out.

I was recently talking to my in-laws who described a situation at their golf course community. The clubhouse was getting an expansion and a facelift. The construction company promised the clubhouse to be completed in September, then in October. Finally, it wasn’t open again for business until mid-November, causing the groups of retirees that use the facility to find other places to meet. It turns out that the person who managed the construction contract was young and unexperienced, and did not have the experience to build incentives into the contract.

4. Question the objective. In some cases, the reframing of the problem means addressing the objectives to begin with. Different people might have different objectives for solving the same problem. For example, Wedell-Wedellsborg quotes a story about two people fighting over whether to keep a window open or closed. The underlying goals of the two turn out to differ: One person wanted fresh air, while the other wanted to avoid a draft. Only when these hidden objectives were brought to light through the questions of a third person was the problem resolved—by opening a window in the next room.

No matter the size or impact of a problem, often reframing the problem can lead to creative and effective solutions.

Source: Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg is an independent consultant and speaker and a coauthor of Innovation as Usual: How to Help Your People Bring Great Ideas to Life (Harvard Business Review Press, March 2013). A version of this article appeared in the January-February 2017 issue (pp.76-83) of Harvard Business Review.