By Tom Peterson
Coming up with a great solution to the wrong problem may feel good at the time but it can send you down a rabbit trail that wastes time and energy. Instead of spinning your wheels on the wrong question, you can get better solutions if you reframe the problem.
Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg’s article “Are You Solving the Right Problems?” in the Harvard Business Review presents helpful ways to approach challenges. In the “slow elevator” example, tenants complain to a building’s owner that the elevator is too slow and they spend a lot of time waiting. Some even threaten to leave.
So the problem is framed: The elevator is too slow.
And the “solution space” for this is: Make the elevator faster. Possible solutions include replace the elevator, get a stronger motor, improve the algorithm.
Instead of these costly solutions the building owner installs mirrors next to the elevators. Why?
The challenge is reframed from “the elevator is too slow” to “the wait is annoying.”
This opens an entirely different set of solutions: put up mirrors, play music, install a hand sanitizer.
Reframe the problem: pet adoption
Wedell-Wedellsborg offers another example. Each year in the United States about 3 million dogs are brought to shelters to be put up for adoption but more than a million don’t find homes. The problem is usually framed: get more people to adopt the dogs. But Lori Weiss, the founder of Downtown Dog Rescue in Los Angeles, reframed the challenge. “Rather than seek to get more dogs adopted,” he writes, “Weise tries to keep them with their original families so that they never enter shelters in the first place. It turns out that about 30 percent of the dogs that enter a shelter are ‘owner surrenders,’ deliberately relinquished by their owners.”
Weiss told him that in many cases the problem was one of poverty: a sudden eviction, inability to pay for a vet fee, how to feed the kids. So they see taking their pet to the shelter as the last option. Wedell-Wedellsborg continues:
Whenever a family comes in to hand over a pet, a staff member asks without judgment if the family would prefer to keep the pet. If the answer is yes, the staff member tries to help resolve the problem, drawing on his or her network and knowledge of the system.
The families get to keep their dogs and shelter space is freed up for other animals. Moreover, while it cost Downtown Dog Rescue an average of $85 per dog housed and adopted, this approach cost only $60.
This financial bonus echoes another reframing: organizations providing shelter, food and other services to chronically homeless people asked what if we simply found them a permanent apartment and provided wraparound services. Because of the high cost of hospital, jail and related services, the average cost per chronically homeless person to communities is $40,000 a year. This “housing first” approach drops that to $16,000. This more humane approach actually saves money. More important, the once chronically homeless people now live safely with dignity and begin to improve their lives.
We all approach problems differently. As we take the time to reframe them and look at them from different points of view, we open more opportunities for innovative and effective solutions.
Reframe Problems, Related Links