7 Steps To Better Problem Framing In Design Thinking


“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask… for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Albert Einstein

Last week a potential new client asked me to help them develop a process to get a group of disparate stakeholders to produce and sign off on a shared strategy document. They knew the output they wanted, just not how to get there given the personalities and logistics involved.

But by framing the problem in this way, they were guaranteeing up front that they’d get really ordinary results. They didn’t need a strategy document. They needed a way to get the disparate stakeholders to form a cohesive team that would actively collaborate to develop and implement a strategy. And they needed one that would support each other throughout the inevitably messy process when things didn’t go to plan. The strategy document was just an artefact — an output. And without the team being willing to work together for the long-haul, it would end up as a fancy door stop instead of a living document that would direct them in bringing about the changes they were committing to make happen.

I see this all the time. And it’s such a waste.

The quality of the question you ask — or the way you frame the problem you’re trying to solve — determines the context, meaning and significance of the project. 

Download the ‘7 Steps to Better Problem Framing’ Cheat Sheet Here

It also determines the scope of what you’re tackling, the engagement of whoever you’re working with to make it happen, and the value of the outcome you create. So it’s just a little bit important. And worth spending some time on. Often days or weeks rather than hours. After all, design thinking is about problem finding more than problem solving, and problem framing is a crucial part of the discovery process.

Design thinking is about problem finding more than problem solving, and problem framing is a crucial part of the discovery process.

A pile of reasons. Usually because we’ve analysed the situation and we think we know what we want — to get rid of whatever the presenting pain point or symptom is. And because it’s hard — probably the most challenging part of any design thinking process — and we aren’t used to or trained to do it. It is consistently the chunk that people struggle with the most in the design thinking courses I teach, so I’ve spent years practicing with different ways of making it clearer and easier to grasp. (Agile essentially leaves it out entirely, takes the brief as assumed, and focuses on the process of creating the solution.) One of the things that makes it particularly hard is that a well-framed problem should include an insight (a new piece of information that will make us see the situation differently), and those too are hard to come by.

But most of all we don’t spend the time on it that it needs because we just want to get stuck into the solving bit.

But most of all we don’t spend the time on it that it needs because we just want to get stuck into the solving bit. After all, that’s where we think our value lies. But the right answer to the wrong question is worth bugger all.

So given that problem framing is more of an art than a science and that it relies as much on intuition as it does on logic, I offer from experience a few key steps to making yours better.

  1. Focus on what you want to create (your ideal outcome), not the problem you’re getting rid of. In this case, you don’t want to overcome people’s self-interested squabbling, you want to create a high-performing team.
  2. Focus on the outcome not the output. “Engaged team” not “strategy document”, people! I know we all like to think that the magic deck will solve all problems by capturing the genius of our irrefutable logic in a stack of pretty charts (kind of like cramming the genie back in the bottle), but really, it’s just an artefact. Like a snapshot from a family holiday but with more chevrons.
  3. Frame it with the people that matter — include input from (or ideally collaborate with) the people who’s problem you’re solving and the people you’ll be working with to solve it. You want to make sure you’re working on the right thing in a way that truly engages the people involved. Mere “buy-in” sucks. If you can, put a person in the middle of your frame. Who are you helping achieve what and why does it matter to them?
  4. Make it meaningful. Which means you have to find out what matters to everyone one and bake that in. This helps make sure you’re working on the right level of problem, and helps keep people motivated and invested when it inevitably proves harder and messier than anticipated. If they aren’t invested, they’ll bail.
  5. Keep it open — don’t limit it by including the solution in the framing. In this case, it’s not “How do we design a series of workshops that will create a high performing team”, since that automatically precludes anything you might want to do outside of that. Instead, ask “How can we get everybody to work together to design and deliver a strategy that we all believe in?”
  6. Be clear how you’ll know you’ve succeeded. What behaviours will you see? What will you have produced? What kind of conversations will you be having (or no longer having)? How will you be interacting?
  7. Be willing to change how you have framed the problem if new insights arise. Not only are there always multiple ways of framing any problem (I encourage you to come up with at least 10 “How Might We” questions to stop you getting fixated on the one “Right” version), but the whole point of a creative process is to keep learning. If you do this well, you’ll discover all sorts of things you couldn’t have foreseen or included at the beginning that may change everything. That’s fine. Go back to the way you’ve framed the problem, and recalibrate or even completely redo it in light of the new insights. Who knows, you may not need to solve the problem you thought you had at all.

Note that it’s always much harder to frame problems where the desired outcome involves changing other people’s beliefs and behaviours.

Note that it’s always much harder to frame problems where the desired outcome involves changing other people’s beliefs and behaviours. Why? Because as anyone who’s ever tried to get their teenager to voluntarily clean up their room knows, you can’t control them and you can’t rely on it happening — however many rationales or inducements you offer. And when this is the case, I have found that using the framework I’ve developed for working with Wicked Problems is much more effective than those that are usually discussed as part of a design thinking approach. More on that in another article.

In the meantime, if you want to get the most out of the time and energy you are investing in both design thinking and the problem you are tackling, take the time to frame the problem properly. The better you do this, the easier the design process and the more relevant and valuable the outcome you create.

Isn’t that worth the extra effort?

For further insights into some of the principles of Design Thinking and some other tools and skills my invitation is to watch some of my videos and download my free eBook — Stick It! Mo’s pro’s guide to getting more out of classic Design Thinking tools here


Interested in more insights into how to use design thinking and creative approaches to navigate your messy strategic problems? Signup to our newsletter or get in touch to see how I might be able to help.


There is no comment on this post. Be the first one.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.