The basics of framing a problem

Ayoola Sosan Written by Ayoola Sosan · 2 min read >

Recently I read an article given to us in the Analytics of Business problem course and decided to blog about it. It is an article  about how to better frame problems. The article is from the University of Virginia. What I discovered about this article is that it explains the fundamental aspect of decision making; Defining Problems. Here is a summary of key takeaways.

Problem Framing

At any point in time, every manager will be expected to solve problems or render solutions to a situation. To solve a problem, good decisions have to be made and to make good decisions, the problem has to be identified. Making decisions is the most important job of any manager. It’s also the toughest and the riskiest. Bad decisions can make or break a business and a career. With the load of decisions that need to be made, it is common to frame problems without much conscious deliberation. However, identifying the problem and framing it correctly determines how it will be approached. To solve a problem, it has to be framed properly. 

Problem framing, then, is associating the events in question with other events, and situations that:

  1. Give the problem meaning.
  2. Suggest possible causes 
  3. Point in the direction of potential remedies.

The facts of a situation are interpreted from a particular view. For example, the data point of a sales drop could be explained from a global economic view, a salesperson incentive view, or some combination of the two. Having a poor problem frame can lead to a variety of undesirable outcomes such as: prolonging the problem; exacerbating its negative consequences; creating new problems; increasing the costs of addressing the problem; wasting resources on unnecessary and unsuccessful interventions; and decreasing the odds that the problem will actually be solved.

What Happens When a Problem is being Framed?

When something unexpected or surprising occurs, the brain automatically starts to search for ways to make sense of it. The mind does so by bringing past experiences and relationships from a decision maker’s interpretative repertoire to the surface. Frames refocus attention on particular aspects of a situation and help decision makers draw out lines of inference and suppositions. To engage in more deliberate problem framing requires thinking about thinking (metacognition). Framing is like having a reflective conversation with a unique and uncertain situation. 

Individuals can and do frame problems differently. This can lead to barriers in collaboration because those differences—when unresolved—point in alternative directions for effective action. Different frames also imply different actors, situations, and events. Frames shape the ways in which people are viewed and thus the kinds of influence they can wield in social situations.

Criteria for Better Frames

There are several criteria that are useful when judging whether a particular frame is better or worse than another. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you judge the appropriateness of a particular frame:

  1. Does this frame allow the problem to be solved?
  2. Are the consequences of this frame something I judge to be good?
  3. Is the problem coherent? Have I uncovered and explained all the disconfirming data?

Best Practices for Better Problem Framing

  1. Experiment with frames.
  2. Collect frames.
  3. Play out the rest of the story.
  4. Try connecting frames.
  5. Have a sense of purpose.
  6. Have conversations about framing.
  7. Construct virtual worlds to bring unintended consequences to the surface. There are several ways to construct virtual worlds:
    1.   Mathematical modelling.
    2. Storyboarding.
    3. Creating role-plays and simulations.

Problem framing is an essential aspect of decision making and this steps can help to better frame the problem of the situation.

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