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Why going into solution mode is a problem

26 June 2019
Creating opportunities by reframing problems
MBA Director Professor Guy Ford explains how reframing a problem can drastically change solutions.

Recently I was reading a story from Business School alumnus Hugh Whalan, about how he founded his business based on an insight – over a billion people worldwide spend approximately US$250 billion a year on dirty and unhealthy fuels to bring energy into their households.

Hugh goes on to say “I didn’t see these 1.3 billion people as hopeless or too poor, I saw an opportunity and 1.3 billion potential customers.”

PEG Africa was born and now focuses on financial models to bring cheap, clean solar energy to the homes of Ghana, in doing so, helping to solve the problem of energy poverty.

This example stood out to me as a case of reframing a problem to create a new product or service. Rather than seeing a problem, Hugh saw a market of 1.3 billion customers.

Reframing is a valuable skill that may help individuals or teams deal with ambiguity and guard against going into solution mode too quickly. This can happen if the solution is embedded within the problem.

For example, how would an app encourage staff to submit their credit card expenses on time? Here, the solution of an app is already incorporated in the framing of the problem, hence removing opportunities for creative thinking.

A simple technique to help reframe a design task and open-up creative possibilities is: create a description statement related to the task and then shift keywords.

This can remove implicit assumptions and biases about the task or problem. As an example, consider the task of designing a new university campus:

Step Instructions Description statement
1 Create a description statement featuring a user, a setting and a goal. A university campus is a physical location (setting) where students (user) are educated (goal).
2 Change the user. A university campus is a physical location (setting) where diverse teams (user) are educated (goal).
3 Change the setting. A university campus is an experience (setting) where diverse teams (users) are educated (goal).
4 Change the goal. A university campus is an experience (setting) where diverse teams (users) work on global problems (goal).

The new description reframes the whole notion of what a university campus of the future may look like and allows for divergent thinking among designers and innovators. 

In the new description statement, we have removed implicit assumptions that a campus needs to be a physical location, that students need to be learning as individuals, and that degrees reflect a specific disciplinary area.  

In summary, next time you or your team face a challenge or issue and you're seeking creative possibilities that will help you stand apart, try to avoid going straight into solution mode too quickly. 

Take some time to explore reframing the problem or issue. There is a good chance you will achieve a very different outcome, improve your product or service, have a more enjoyable experience in the process, and become true innovators.