How to Solve Impossible Problems: Reframing

Problem Solving Puzzle

Source: Adobe Stock

Every day we’re presented with what seem like impossible challenges. Issues that you can’t crack, even after weeks, months, or years of trying.

How do you approach these challenges? Do you have a strategy that you follow, or do you just hope for the best? There’s a better way to solve impossible problems — improve the quality of your thinking.

Better thinking, problem-solving, and reasoning are skills. They can be developed through learning new frameworks and expanding our mental models.

Lucky for us, brilliant thinkers have left behind proven ways to attack these impossible problems.

Reframing is one of those tools.


What is Reframing?

Reframing means changing your perspective on a problem by looking at it from different angles and defining it differently. Usually, it will involve rewording your problem statement in a way that changes how you approach the challenge.

For example, you might reframe a career challenge to consider a different set of options.

Let’s say you’ve been trying to get promoted from Manager to Director for five years. You keep losing out to less experienced coworkers who are entering the workforce directly from an MBA program. You could frame your challenge as, “How can I compete with my MBA-grad coworkers?” The obvious answer to this problem statement would be to spend tens of thousands of dollars getting an executive MBA.

But, if you reframe the challenge, you’ll find there are many possible solutions:

  • What if you reframe your challenge to be about your company’s culture instead of focusing on your colleague’s credentials? Your new problem statement might be, “How can I find a company that better rewards industry experience, as opposed to formal degrees?” Framing the problem this way might cause you to start looking for a new job.
  • You could even reframe this challenge as, “How can I create an environment that rewards my expertise?” This problem statement might lead you to start your own business and skip straight from manager to CEO.

Each of these potential paths depends on how you frame your initial challenge.


We’re All Pretty Bad at Making Time to Reframe

“The framing of a problem is often far more essential than its solution.” ― Albert Einstein

In his book, What’s Your Problem, author Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg talks about a survey he conducted with C-suite executives, asking if their organizations were using reframing and how. According to his survey, 85% percent of organizations are “not good at reframing.”

According to Wedell-Wedellsborg, nearly the same number of respondents said “their companies waste significant resources because of [being bad at reframing problems].”

If reframing is so important, why don’t we do it more? There are a few possibilities, like lack of time and resources. But it’s also down to a cognitive bias known as Action Bias.

Action Bias Car Racing

Source: Adobe Stock

What is Action Bias?

Action Bias describes the human tendency to jump straight to doing something, even if it leads to a worse outcome than doing nothing. For example, let’s say your business’s profit is declining. A manager that’s fallen victim to Action Bias might immediately declare that the company should launch a new product — without deciding if a new product would solve the profit problem.

Another manager, who’s trying to avoid Action Bias, might take a few weeks to return to first principles by investigating, interrogating, and reframing the problem. Potentially, the profit challenge isn’t down to fewer sales but rising costs. Their approach might be to find a way to reduce costs rather than increase sales.

3 Examples of Reframing in Action

Doctor talking to patient

Source: Adobe Stock

1. Doctor’s Reframe Potential Loss as Potential Gain

To demonstrate the power of this tool, let’s take a look at a study that proved reframing a particular type of cancer surgery could improve opt-in rates. During the study, doctors presented patients with two options. Each framed surgery as a potential gain or a possible loss, and the results were staggering.

  • Surgery framed as again: “The one-month survival rate of surgery is 90%.”
  • Surgery framed as a loss: “There is a 10% chance of death in the month post-surgery.”

When framed as again, 84% of people chose surgery. But when framed as a loss, only 50% opted in. This simple reframing of the same information increased surgery opt-ins by 54%.

Ship in dock

Source: Adobe Stock

2. Reframing Saves the Shipping Industry

In his book, Thinkertoys, author Michael Michalko relays a story about reframing in the shipping industry.

“In the 1950s, experts believe that the ocean-going freighter was dying. Costs were rising, and it took longer and longer to get merchandise delivered.
The shipping industry formulated their challenge as: ‘In what ways might we make ships more economical at sea?”

This problem statement caused the industry to focus on creating more efficient, faster ships. These ships reduced fuel costs and used smaller crews, but costs kept going up. As Michalko put it,

“They were doing things right, but they weren’t doing the right thing.”

Once a consultant stepped in and reframed the problem as “In what ways might the shipping industry reduce costs?” the industry began considering other parts of their industry — beyond just making cargo ships more efficient.

When they reframed the problem and considered new information, it turned out that most of the industry’s costs were happening on land, not at sea. As Michalko put it,

“The innovation that saved an industry was to separate loading from stowing, by doing the loading on land, before the ship is in port. It is much quicker to put on and take off preloaded freight.
They decided to concentrate on the costs of not working rather than working, and reduce the amount of time a freighter does not work.”
Tabasco hot sauce

Source: Adobe Stock

3. Tabasco Hot Sauce Finds a Brilliant, if Obvious, Sales Solution

The story of Tabasco hot sauce’s brilliant marketing solution is now considered an industry fable. Regardless, it’s a great illustration of how reframing your problem through another person’s eyes can help us find brilliant — if overlooked — solutions.

The story goes that Tabasco had launched a popular television ad, but that sales remained unaffected. One day, the CEO was loudly complaining about how the expensive ad had gotten customers’ attention but that the sales hadn’t increased at all. The CEO had framed the sales problem as, “How can we create an ad that causes more people to buy our product?”

A factory worker (or in some tellings, a marketing executive) overheard this complaint, looked at the CEO, and said, “Why don’t you just make the hole bigger?” Customers would unknowingly use more of the product and buy more bottles as a result.

Pouring hot sauce

Source: Adobe Stock

The factory worker’s brilliant advice came from a different framing of the problem. He dealt with the product all day, so he naturally reframed the sales problem with a solution that involved the product itself.

How to Apply Reframing: 3 Practices

1. Get an outsider’s opinion

As Wedell-Wedellsborg points out, when you begin discussing your problem including “boundary spanners” can be helpful. These people understand your personal situation, business, or industry but aren’t fully immersed.

Boundary spanners can quickly understand your challenge and industry, without being dragged down by day-to-day, or systemic ways of thinking. They can bring a fresh perspective based on the past, but not bogged down by it.

2. Zoom out to see what’s missing

When you’re interrogating a problem statement, it can be easy to get tunnel vision. For example, if your challenge is phrased as a sales problem, you might only consider sales solutions. You wouldn’t consider marketing, delivery, production, or product changes.

If you zoom out from your problem to consider the bigger picture, you’ll begin to consider information and solutions. By their nature, problem statements present a narrower frame of view. Certain data, options, causes, and solutions spring to mind more quickly than others because of how you ask the question.

3. Consider problem-free moments

To solve a problem, it can help to consider what happened in the absence of the problem. Wedell-Wedellsborg recommends looking at times when the problem you’re trying to solve didn’t happen and ask yourself, “What was different about that situation?”

Comparing a problem moment with a problem-free moment can quickly make the solution seem obvious.


The Bottom Line

Because it requires time and resource, a formal reframing process might be an exercise you save for really important challenges.

To determine if you need to take time to reframe, ask yourself:

  • Am I taking enough time defining the problem?
  • Do I feel trapped by my current set of options?
  • Have we tried a few solutions and nothing seems to be working?

And if you’re still struggling to find a reason why you should take time to reframe a problem, consider the words of legendary strategist Peter Drucker:

“The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The true dangerous thing is asking the wrong question.”


Please note: this article contains Amazon affiliate links to the books mentioned. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. If you click the link to purchase one of the items, I may receive a small amount of monetary compensation from Amazon at no additional cost to you.

How to Make Better Decisions: 10 Cognitive Biases and How to Outsmart Them
How to Solve Impossible Problems: S.C.A.M.P.E.R. Framework
Decision Fatigue: How Your Brain Works Against Your Best Intentions
Thinking Traps: Don’t Let a Good Story Cause a Bad Decision
How to Make Better Decisions: The Mere Urgency Effect
How to Solve Impossible Problems: First Principles Thinking

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