“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” – Albert Einstein
Have you ever implemented a solution to what you thought was the problem, only to realise that you had solved the wrong problem?
When it comes to finding solutions, how we frame the problem will determine the right context for how we solve it. Problem framing is the art of finding a better problem to solve. It means interrogating and analysing the context to establish a more precise problem framework. In a complex world, solving problems isn’t easy to start with, but it’s made harder when we aren’t sure exactly what we’re trying to solve.
Importance of Framing to Solving
Framing helps us understand what we’re trying to achieve, to view the problem from multiple angles, and avoid making mistakes or creating new problems. Problem framing is an important part of military professionalism, as we must regularly solve complex problems in difficult circumstances. It applies on operations, in barracks, in capability procurement and even in non-military scenarios, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. It can be found in many military planning processes that exist today, such as the Individual Military Appreciation Process. However, problem framing isn’t easy.
In the real world, it is rare to find a problem that is pre-framed in a nice way. Often, what we do find, are problems with insufficient, contradictory, or ambiguous information that we have no idea how to frame.
It is also a necessary element of the Intellectual Edge. It helps to inform, direct, and apply our intellectual capabilities to produce the right effects to the right problems. Understood well, it can become a self-reinforcing cycle, individually and as part of the collective culture, to produce better outcomes.
A Recursive Process: The Relationship between Framing and Solving the Problem
The relationship between framing a problem and solving it may appear to be linear. You typically begin by framing a problem, i.e. determining the relevant variables, their relationships, their relative importance, etc. Having done that, you might then continue to determine possible solutions, and implement the best one.
However, this linear model ignores the value of re-evaluating your original context as new information becomes available. This transforms relationship between framing and solving a problem from a linear one to a cyclic and recursive one.
Understanding this relationship matters because we tend to rush through the framing process to focus on finding the solution. Although we all start with contextualising the problem, we often focus more on solving it than framing it.
By not spending enough time and effort on framing the problem, and by not re-assessing how you’ve framed it, you risk missing valuable information and perspectives for solving a perceived problem. In the worst case, this could lead to solving the wrong problem.
To help in understanding how to frame problems, I’ve covered some key concepts and challenges below.
Finding a Better Problem
A key challenge in problem framing is finding the right problem to solve, rather than the most obvious. Often this means finding a better problem to solve.
One way to do this is to apply what is known as first principles thinking. This technique breaks the problem into its most foundational components and then examines the problem from the ground up.
One tool that is very useful to first principles thinking is the ‘5 Whys’. This tool repeatedly asks why an issue occurs, where each answer forms the basis for the next question to determine the root cause, instead of the proximal cause.
The proximal cause is what we see on the surface, but as we dig deeper, we get closer to discovering the root cause. Interrogating the problem to reveal the root cause not only helps to solve the immediate problem but help us to find 2nd and 3rd order solutions. In other words, finding a better problem can solve current and future problems.
Finding a better problem, one that is focused on solving root rather than proximal causes, is crucial because it forces us to spend more time framing the problem to clarify what needs to be solved and prevents fixation on particular solutions.
Defining a Problem by its Solution (or Absence of)
How we frame a problem can be defined by the presence or absence of a solution. Often, this is because we tend to find the solution before we’ve adequately explored the problem. This creates a risk of framing the problem around our assumptions of the solution, which is often shaped by individual and collective biases.
Sometimes, previous experiences with a problem can lead us to view the familiar solution as the only solution. Alternatively, we define the problem by the tools and solutions immediately available. Both cases suffer from a fixed mindset. We become dependent on the familiar or obvious solution. But that doesn’t mean they are the best solution for the job.
This concept is known as functional fixedness. It refers to having a mental block towards thinking about an object in a new way to solve a problem. It’s the classic case of Maslow’s Hammer. By overcoming functional fixedness, we can see the possibilities in objects and solutions and can focus on correctly framing and solving the problem, rather than letting assumptions about the solution decide what the problem is.
The Einstellung Effect (and Seeking Other Perspectives)
Another challenge to problem framing is known as the ’Einstellung effect’. This effect describes our tendency to stop seeing alternatives once we think we’ve found the right answer. Where functional fixedness prevents us from seeing new ways of problem solving based on our experience, the Einstellung effect limits our ability to entertain alternatives once a solution has been found.
This can affect us at any point in the problem framing cycle. It can pre-emptively force us into the problem-solving phase before we have adequately framed the problem. And in doing so, we lock out alternatives that may in fact be better suited to the problem.
We can overcome this by deliberately continuing to search for options even after we find an adequate one to question if there is a better problem or solution available. As World Chess Champion Emanuel Lasker puts it, “when you see a good move, look for a better one.” By entertaining multiple perspectives, even after we think we’ve found the right one, we open our minds to solve the problem in more creative and effective ways.
Problem framing is a critical skill to practice and develop in a complex and ambiguous world. The first problem we try to solve isn’t always the right problem.
Seeking out root causes rather than proximal ones and recognising the impact of functional fixedness and the Einstellung effect on our thinking will help make us better problem framers, and ultimately problem solvers.
Problem framing forms an integral part of applying the Intellectual Edge. As military professionals, we should seek to improve our ability to frame and solve problems so we can make the best decisions possible, whether in the field or in the barracks.
Chris Wooding is a Trainee Officer at the Royal Military College Duntroon. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Australian Defence Force Academy and a Contributing Author for Grounded Curiosity. You can continue the discussion on Twitter @cr_wood1.