Framing the Problem

FrameIn my last blog, I proposed that we can always make smart decisions by focusing on the process and not the outcome. After all, the process you use to make your decision is controllable while the outcome is not. By committing to using a smart decision process, our decisions will have a much higher chance of a favorable outcome over time. So, what constitutes a “smart” decision process? Seven basic steps…

  1. Frame the problem to be solved

  2. Determine what’s important to the solution (i.e. establish criteria)

  3. Rank the criteria so that you understand their relative importance

  4. Determine possible alternative solutions

  5. Rank the alternatives relative to the criteria

  6. Perform a cost / benefit analysis (if cost is a consideration, otherwise you can skip this step)

  7. Decide!


The first and arguably the most important step is framing the problem.It seems obvious that you won’t get a good answer if you don’t understand what you are trying to accomplish.You can also change the scope of the problem and create opportunities for innovation. Often, understanding and “framing” the problem requires a lot of critical thinking, detective work and is typically a process of discovery and even trial and error. Here’s an example of how a problem frame can affect the decision…

Think back to early 2001…. If you had a portable music player, it probably used CD’s. Then the iPod came along and changed the way we thought about portable music and changed the way we live. The problem frame for the iPod was incredibly broad – Apple framed the problem to include not only the device technology, packaging and styling but the way we purchase music. The result was the iconic IPod digital music players and the iTunes store which is arguably an even more impactful innovation than the iPod.

Imagine how different the result would have been if Apple had framed the problem as “Improve the current portable music players”… I’m sure Apple would have delivered a beautifully styled and packaged CD player, but it would not have been a disruptive innovation like iPod and iTunes.

As you can see, the problem frame is vitally important because it sets the context of the problem – it asks the “right” question, comprehends the constraints and is critical to making a smart decision. It’s the foundation of the decision process and influences every step including the solution criteria (aka solution objectives), the information gathered, the solution alternatives and the eventual outcome and actions of the decision making process.

The frame also includes how the problem is defined and perceived by the decision maker. Sometimes this perception makes all the difference and can turn problems into opportunities. So, if you are faced with a decision problem, spend some time thinking about how it can be re-framed into an opportunity…. You may be surprised at how it turns out.

Next time, let’s talk about establishing and ranking criteria so we know what’s important to our decision.


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