The following is a conversation between Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, the Author of What’s Your Problem? To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: The World Economic Forum lists complex problem solving as the number one skill for 21st-century jobs. But how many of us, faced with a problem, just dive right in looking for a solution? My next guest says there’s a better way, and that’s taking a moment to reframe the problem presented to you and determine whether it, in fact, is the right problem to be working on. He is Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, the Author of What’s Your Problem? To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Thomas!
Thomas: Fantastic. Thank you, Denver, for bringing me on.
…when you look at problem solving in general, there’s really two parts to it. There’s the solving part, and we’re pretty good at that, but then there is this big missing piece, which is the problem-finding part– basically, the idea of making sure you’re solving the right problem before you jump into action.
Denver: You have previously written a book about innovation. What prompted you to now write a book about problem solving?
Thomas: Through that work actually, with a lot of companies around the world. I noticed that when you look at problem-solving in general, there’s really two parts to it. There’s the solving part, and we’re pretty good at that, but then there is this big missing piece, which is the problem-finding part. That’s what it’s called in academia — basically, the idea of making sure you’re solving the right problem before you jump into action.
I just noticed a big missing gap with most people, most leaders, even really talented ones. Eighty-five percent of the companies I asked told me that this was something they didn’t master. They lost a lot of money on it. And I found even people who are good at it… they actually don’t know why. It’s like tacit knowledge for them. And that’s what really led me to try to put together a simple guide for how to get better at solving the right problems.
Denver: You really teach yourself a lot when you do something like that because it might have even been tacit with you, but then when you actually have to go through the process of explaining it, you become far more intentional and deliberate, and say, “Why do I do the things that I did?” And it gets you thinking along those lines.
Thomas: Yes. And it is interesting to consider how much of the knowledge we have is like you hope to sit next to somebody who knows how and then learn it by osmosis. And I think we can do better than that, for this at least.
Denver: For the purpose of this book, Thomas, how do you define a problem?
Thomas: Very basically, when you have a goal that you don’t know how to reach. And that can apply to everything from you’re managing a factory, and the output is like, “There’s things going wrong. We need to get it back to baseline.” It can be stuff like, ” We want to be number one in this area, but we don’t really know how.” Or in this market.” Or it can even be like at home, “How do I get through a happy Thanksgiving dinner with my family?”… Or whatever holiday where you’re forced to spend extended time with your extended family, that type of stuff.
So really, it’s like you have some sense that things could be better here, but you don’t know how to get there.
Denver: So it can be challenges, too, and goals and all those different types of things, the desired state in which you want to reach. Give us a little history of reframing. Is this a relatively new idea, or has it been around in one form or another for quite some time?
Thomas: That was so fascinating to me, that most management books try to introduce some new concept that you’d never heard of before.
This has been around for more than a hundred years. Einstein talks about it; Peter Drucker. The first research into this startedd surfacing in the… So there’s been maybe 50 years of research on this now, all pointing to the fact that this is as important as brainstorming or other things like just the basic skill of solving the right problems. And yet still, we’re not very good at it. There is something here where the knowledge we have from the academic world hasn’t really filtered into the real world, if you will, at least in a way where you can use it in practice.
Denver: Well, they probably have tried to make it so complicated for us that only they have access to it.
Thomas: True. That’s actually one of the problems I’ve found, that we have some frameworks out there, but either they require you to take a three-month education, become like a colored belt or whatever, or they’re just so cumbersome that you kind of like, “Here’s a list of 500 questions you need to ask.” Nobody has time for that on a Wednesday afternoon. It has to be simple. It has to be practical.
Denver: Thomas, how is reframing different from analyzing a problem?
Thomas: I think that’s really at the heart of this method. When you go in and you say — you know what? Let me share an example. That’s almost the easiest way to explain it.
There’s this example I have in the book — the slow elevator problem. And the problem–
Denver: A great example.
Thomas: Yes. It’s just so simple. It’s like I’ll explain this now, and you’ll remember it forever, and you can retell it to everybody.
You are the owner of an apartment building or an office building or whatever, and people in the building, the tenants, they are complaining about the elevator that is slow. Now, you will notice here, if you think of the problem as the elevator being slow and you delve into analyzing that, then you start asking, “How do we make the elevator faster? What makes it slow?” If you ask experienced landlords though, they tend to have a different solution they’d suggest to you, which is to put up mirrors in the hallway next to the elevator. Because what happens is people go, of course, like, “Oh, I’m busy, I’m busy.” They look up, they see the mirror and they go, “Oh. Oh, that’s beautiful. “
Denver: I hope the elevator doesn’t come too soon.
Thomas: Exactly. “Just take this one.” Now, that simple example really highlights the idea that you can analyze the question of why is the elevator slow, but that might be the exact wrong problem to analyze.
In this case, what you want to do is what I call reframing the problem. And that is asking, instead of delving into this problem that’s been put in front of us, is there a different way of looking at the problem? Is there another problem to solve that could help us somehow? In this case, not solving for the speed of the elevator, but for the experience of the waiting time.
So, key difference between analyzing a problem and framing the right problem to analyze, if you will.
Denver: And I would imagine it’s getting even worse now with the urgency of time that when a problem is presented to you, you just dive right in. You don’t even take that moment, that pause, to think about it. You just start because of all the outside pressures and things.
Well, you present in the book five strategies for what you just talked about — reframing. Give us a brief overview of those.
Thomas: Well, it’s really the second you have stated what the problem is, say the elevator is slow; then you try to question that problem. And the strategies that I’ve come up with, they’re really based on the recognition that not all questions you can ask are equally good at servicing new angles on a problem.
And so the five strategies I’ve arrived at, I’ll riff them off here. We can delve deeper. They are really ways to approach a problem that’ll often help you find new angles on it, based on the experience I’ve had working with companies all over the world and working on real world problems… what actually works.
So, in brief, here’s the rodeo version of it. First, look outside the frame. Ask what’s missing. Instead of focusing on the speed of the elevator, ask: Is this problem really about the speed at all? Or is it anything else that we’re not considering here?
Denver: So you’re zooming out in other words, instead of zooming in?
Thomas: Zooming out! Exactly. We tend to zoom in or delve in. Better to zoom out to start with.
Rethinking the goal. What does success really look like here? Is success a faster elevator or might success be happy tenants or, at least, distracted tenants, if you will?
Examining bright spots. That’s the third strategy. Going in and saying, “When don’t we have the problem?” You might discover that “Oh, actually this is just a problem with the elevator at 12 o’clock when everybody goes to lunch because we have the same lunch times in the entire building.” So the second you look at bright spots, meaning possible exceptions, you might start getting new insights into the problem.
Fourth strategy, looking in the mirror, asking, “What is my role in creating this problem?” We tend to think that problems are caused by other people, and we are the innocent victims. Not true. We often have some stake in a problem, in creating a problem ourselves.
And finally, a basic thing that’s harder than it sounds, which is to take the other people’s perspective. Like whoever is involved in this problem, genuinely try to step into their shoes and think about: Are they religious, unreasonable idiots? Or might there be something else going on? Sometimes, they actually are…., but okay.
So you can get a sense here of these approaches to problems, once you get them a little bit of habit in it, they tend to be very powerful at surfacing new angles on the challenge you were looking at.
Denver: I love those five strategies. I just had an experience with one of them, and I was working with a client who was losing a lot of its people, and were trying to figure out why everybody was leaving. And I got them to begin to address the issue “Why are some of your best people staying?” And look at that, and ask them about that and build something from there as opposed to why people are walking out the door. And that would be one of those bright spots, those exceptions that you were talking about.
Thomas: Exactly. It’s super. And now I’m getting curious. Can you share what the answer turned out to be?
Denver: What turned out to be?
Thomas: Why did the good employees… why didn’t they leave? Did you find out what the part of the answer was as to why they were…or are you still looking at it with the client?
Denver: Well, we still are. A lot of it obviously had to do with the mission, but a lot of it had to do with where they were working in the organization, and the fact that they were empowered to do the things the way they thought they needed to be done. They got direction and guidance from leadership, but they were left alone. And those people felt that they had agency over their work. Not only was it purpose-driven. And it wasn’t like that in other parts of the organization.
So then you go back to the leadership, and you say, “Quit micromanaging so much with your other department heads, and give some people the freedom; trust the people that they will be able to get this done.”
And that seemed to be… it’s a work-in -progress right now, but it’s beginning to change as they see that because they looked for where it’s working… and we have a tendency with problems, as you suggested, by not looking at bright spots, always looking at what’s not working. And that’s exactly what you do.
Thomas: Yes. Absolutely. And I think that’s also like, even in the case, you’re mentioning, if you try to do exit interviews with people who are leaving, it’s not so often you get the truth. Like often, people will say, “Oh, I got a better offer somewhere else” in order to not burn any bridges.
Denver: That’s exactly right.
Thomas: So a beautiful example, and what a radical notion to trust people!
Denver: The exception, not the rule.
Well, let’s take those five frames and apply them to another example you cite in the book, which is America’s shelter dog problem.
Thomas: It was such a potent story when I ran into it, and it comes from this woman called Lori Weise that I have been following her work in this space.
So a brief introduction to the problem. When you look at shelter dogs in the US, there’s a lot of dogs in the US, and so we actually have a lot of dogs ending up in shelters, and we don’t have enough people adopting. And so, for decades, shelters have had a surplus of adoptable dogs, and there’s a lot of volunteer efforts and so on. There’s a lot of advertising for it, but we’re not really moving the needle on it properly. Every year, we need extra homes for more than a million extra dogs, not to mention cats and other pets and so on.
Now, what I found fascinating was, when you think about this problem, how do we get more people to adopt? That’s really a problem we’ve tried to solve for a long time. We made some headway. We’ve done some advertising. I’m sure if you’ve ever Googled this, your Facebook feed will be filled with pictures of sad dogs, asking for donations and what have we.
Lori was a powerful example, both of a bright spot and of somebody who went in, and she rethought the goal of what she was trying to do. So she had a sense that there’s something off because when you looked at the data in this industry, 30% of the dogs that enter a shelter, they’re almost called “owner surrenders.” And an owner surrender, that’s a dog that is handed over by their family deliberately. The owner comes in and says, “Here, take my dog.”
Now, as you can imagine, if you work in this space, maybe in a shelter or as a volunteer, you don’t like those people. You’re like, “How can you give up a dog?”
Denver: Heartless! Yes.
Thomas: Totally heartless. Like, “Do you think it’s just a toy you throw away? No.”
Denver: What kind of person are you?
Thomas: Exactly. And as a result of this perception, you can see how the industry has basically geared up to prevent adoptions to some extent. I say this harshly, but in many shelters, if you enter, they actually have this long list of questions. You have to give references to your employee, to your vet, to your landlord, what have you. All of which is intended to protect the dogs against being adopted by a bad owner. And clearly, like we’re thinking there’s a lot of bad owners because of these numbers we’re looking at.
What was so fascinating with Lori was she had a sense of something off there. So she did a small experiment. She had one of her people stand at a shelter, and whenever a family came in to hand over their dog, she would basically ask them first, “Wait. If you could, would you like to keep your dog?“ And first revelation there, 75% of them said, “Yes. They would not, they did not want to get rid of their dog. They were in tears.”
Second insight. When she started asking them, “Wait. Why do you think you have to hand over your dog today?” It turned out not to be a people problem. It turned out to be around money. Typically, a family would — they were moving into a new building, and the landlord required $150 deposit to house the dog. And there’s just no way they could get that money. If you look at the statistics, sadly within the US, I think it’s 40% of all families that would struggle to find $400 in an emergency.
Denver: That’s right.
Thomas: So these were people who love their dogs, but were also so poor that they didn’t necessarily quite know how they’d feed their kids at the end of the day. And once she had that insight, she actually found that it was cheaper to help the family solve that problem, or put down a deposit, than it was for them to help the dogs the other way, namely to pay for them being in the shelters and so on.
So she turned out by rethinking this problem, by going in and saying, “Wait. Are we focusing on the right thing here?” She turned out basically a solution that not only allowed these families to keep their dogs, but also reduced the cost of helping dogs in this industry from, I think it was from $85 per dog to $60 per dog. So an amazing impact for solving a problem — and this is so fascinating to me — that wasn’t solved in a technological way.
Denver: That’s the first thing you think, some kind of app has come along to do this, but that’s not the case. This could have been done in 1955.
Thomas: Absolutely! And you see here… this is what I love about the way we think about problems. We’re so anchored in solutions. So it’s exactly, as you say, people are very rapid. They jump in ahead and say, “Well, hey, we should build an app for this!” instead of going in and saying, “Wait. What’s actually the problem here? And can we rethink what’s really going on? Can we step away from that way we’re thinking about it, and through that find a better, in this case, not a technological solution?”
…one of the reasons I think this skill is so important because if you do this, if you reframe the problem early enough, then you have a chance of stopping yourself and redirecting yourself before people fall in love with a solution, or before we have committed to something and then have to double down…
Denver: And we don’t do a lot of that because when I think about a lot of our intractable problems, there always seems to be a doubling down on trying to get through them. Whereas, if they’ve been going on for decades and more money and more people and more resources haven’t made a difference, boy, that’s a zoom out moment to be able to say, “Maybe we should try something a little bit different.” We don’t do much of that.
Thomas: That’s one of the reasons I think this skill is so important because if you do this, if you reframe the problem early enough, then you have a chance of stopping yourself and redirecting yourself before people fall in love with a solution, or before we have committed to something and then have to double down… because if not, we’re going to look like idiots for committing to it in the first place.
So there’s so many dynamics I think could be better if we could just teach… can we please teach everybody to take that simple step in the beginning with saying, “Wait a second. Is there a better problem to solve here? What are we really looking at?” I think that we can make a very big difference.
…reframing isn’t like step one in the process. It is a mindset, and it is something that you always have in the back of your mind, keeping an eye on it.
Denver: You say “if we reframe it early enough,” so the question I have for you: Is reframing something that you do at the very outset? Or is this an iterative process that you do all the way along?
Thomas: It is exactly iterative, and for two reasons. One is, of course, that you can’t expect to get the perfect analysis initially. This is like we know from the world of startups and design thinking and so on, you have to combine acting and thinking in order to get it right. You go, you reframe, then you go out and work a little bit on the problem. Then you step back and say, “Given what we did this week, did we learn something new about the problem?” Like Lori’s story, which I just shared. She used a small experiment to start to understand what the problem was.
But there’s another more interesting reason, and that is that problems mutate. We have the sense sometimes of, “Oh no. The problem is the problem, and we just have to solve it.” That’s true for the problems we encounter in school, like what’s the length of this triangle, if blah, blah, blah. But real-world problems, they change over time. And so I preach that reframing isn’t like step one in the process. It is a mindset, and it is something that you always have in the back of your mind, keeping an eye on it. Are our customers changing? Are our markets changing? Are our competitors… like “What’s changing here in this space?” Always having a sense of how the problem might evolve. So, absolutely, iterative.
Denver: Don’t get too locked in.
Now, this is another problem I have, or people have, and that’s going to be that of time, because, again, we’re in this “just-do-it” culture. My boss has told me to get this thing solved. And she comes back to me, and I tell her, “I’m reframing it.” How long does this take?
Thomas: Critical question, right? Because if you try to convince your boss that you have to take a vacation, go off into the mountains, thinking… good luck with that. I think that’s one of the key contributions that I’m making. You can do this in 5 to 10 minutes. You can do this as part of a normal afternoon meeting. You can do it as part of a client conversation, if you will. And that’s so crucial because the second this becomes a too cumbersome process, you don’t get it done.
So the essence of this is basically to say, “Hey, What’s the problem?” Then get hold of one or two other people, and try to say, “Is there a different way of thinking about it?” Use the strategies if you can. But even if you can’t, just try to spend 5 to 10 minutes on trying to pummel the problem a little bit, and see if there might be other angles on it before you decide how to move forward. That’s really the essence of it.
Denver: Have you come across, Thomas, an example of where reframing has helped someone or some organization better address one of the myriad of problems that have arisen from the COVID pandemic in lockdown?
Thomas: This is a very particular example, but a week after my book came out… and it came out globally, I got an email from a reader in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. He was a factory manager, and they had a basic problem with COVID, namely that all of their workers were congregating in the waiting area, like the smoking area, and they weren’t keeping proper distance. So they had tried lots of stuff, like putting up signs, marking the chairs where you’re supposed to sit. It didn’t work.
So he read the book; then he used it on this with his team, and they suddenly realized that, “Yes. We have all these people congregating in the waiting area or in the smoking area, but actually, most of them don’t smoke.” And suddenly, they realized that people were using the smoking area as a break area as well because the other break area was too far away to make it on a normal break. So a very simple recognition that, “Oh, now I see what’s going on.” And what they ended up doing was to move the smoking area further away so people could use that break area, so the smokers could go smoke, but they had to walk a little extra. And actually some of them started smoking less, which was a positive side benefit.
So did that example change the entire world? No. But I love it because it highlights that it’s not just about the really big problems we face. It is equally just about getting those small things right. Imagine a scenario in which everybody in a company has the ability to go in and do that, to fix those small daily problems so we get — whether it’s COVID or whatever challenges we’re facing — so we get that right. That’s, I think, an idea that gives me hope.
Denver: Speaking about walking, you got me thinking about walking to the smoke area, why we have to walk so far to get our bags at an airport.
Thomas: That’s an example that a fellow reframing thinker uses quite a lot. The book is called Invisible Solutions. And the story he describes in that is exactly that. That is often about making people wait less at the conveyor belt. Instead of having them stand there and grumble as the suitcases are arriving, well, you just make sure the flight arrives further away so they have a longer walk because people don’t really mind walking. They mind just standing and waiting mindlessly. So a very beautiful example–
Denver: Unless there’s a mirror there apparently.
Thomas: Yes. Exactly. We should put all the mirrors there, too.
Frustration is a natural part of solving problems. Roger Martin, who’s written a lot about this also, emphasizes that good problem solvers have the ability to remain frustrated instead of just seeking a quick solution.
Denver: OK. What happens when reframing doesn’t work? Let’s say you try to do it; you end up right where you were at the very beginning. Is there anything you can do? And conversely, Thomas, what if it works too well and all of a sudden, I have 10 options to choose from? Speak about those two things.
Thomas: Right. Let’s take them in inverse order and say first, sometimes you have that experience where you start with one problem, you reframe, and now you have 10 problems. That can feel a bit frustrating. Now, that’s okay. Frustration is a natural part of solving problems. Roger Martin, who’s written a lot about this also, emphasizes that good problem solvers have the ability to remain frustrated instead of just seeking a quick solution.
What you want to do there is to try to keep an eye out for specific framings. And my experience has been, you want to look for framings that are simple, surprising, or significant if true. Like, first of all, look always for simple solutions because the really good ones, they tend to be fairly non-complex. Like the story I told you about Lori and the dogs. It was just about keeping those dogs with their first family. It wasn’t like a very high-tech kind of problem or solution.
Thomas: You want to look for surprising things because what’s happened when I run this workshop with people; they work through real-world problems and sometimes you get, literally, this visceral feeling of surprise, “Oh! I hadn’t thought about that.” That tends to be a sign you want to investigate that framing further because, effectively, you’ve somehow broken a mental model you have around your problem. That’s where the surprise comes from.
Finally, you may want to check out if there’s a specific framing, even if you don’t really believe in it. If it happens to be very impactful if true, then you may want to look at it because you could be wrong about your assumptions about the problem.
So simple, surprising, or significant if true. That’s the three indicators I tend to look for.
Denver: Well, I’ll give you a real-world problem, and that is that there’s probably people out there who hate their boss. Tell us the story about the man who hated his boss.
Thomas: Oh, yes. It’s amazing. This is a real-world story from Robert Sternberg who’s a creativity researcher. The story is: there’s this leader. He works in the auto industry, and he hates his boss. He loves his job, hates his boss. And so one day, he says, “OK, enough.” He goes to a headhunter and he asks the headhunter to find him a new job in the industry. Headhunter says, “No problem. This should be easy. There’s a great demand at the moment.”
That same evening though, the leader talks to his wife, who happens to be a bit of an expert in reframing and together, they come up with a more powerful solution. So the next day, the leader goes back to the headhunter, and he gives the headhunter, his boss’s CV, and says, “Can you find a job for this guy?” And according to Sternberg, what ended up happening was the boss accepted that job not knowing he had been poked a little bit with it, and the leader ended up getting the boss’s job in the end.
Denver: Absolutely brilliant!
Thomas: Yes. Such a beautiful example. I’m sure none of your listeners have bad bosses, but here’s a hint if you do.
…we have this notion that problem diagnosis has to take a lot of time. The second you buy into that, you’ll never get it done.
Denver: Finally, Thomas, you know, I think anybody listening to this is going to say, “Reframing a problem. That makes an awful lot of sense.” So the question I have for you is: Why haven’t we? Why haven’t more companies, more organizations been doing this for years and years?
Thomas: Really, I think it comes back to time and that myth… you know that famous saying that people always quoted to me, and it’s a horrible saying, so I’ll warn you before I share it. But it’s this thing that’s probably attributed to Einstein. He never said it, but this thing about: if I had an hour, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problems and five minutes solving.
That’s a horrible idea. That is basically what we call paralysis by analysis. And we have this notion that problem diagnosis has to take a lot of time. The second you buy into that, you’ll never get it done. Like on maybe for the really big strategic problems, but otherwise, just doesn’t happen because nobody has the time. So the central thing to get into here with this method is to realize: No. You don’t need an hour. You can actually start with five minutes and talk to two other people, and that can help you move forward. So there’s a bigger story behind it, but I think that’s the central reason. We haven’t taught people how to do this as part of their everyday lives.
Denver: That’s the point of your book: to democratize reframing, right?
Thomas: Exactly. When I started out writing it, what I basically set out as my vision was I’d like to try to upgrade the entire world’s ability to do this. This is not just for CEOs or top leaders or whatever. This is something everybody can use, and I think that somebody, everybody should use. We all have problems, and if we could get just 10% better at doing this, I think we could make a tremendous difference.
Denver: Tell us about your website, Thomas, and what visitors will find if they go there.
Thomas: Well, howtoreframe, it’s called. And there’s, of course, a little bit about the book and the framework, but there’s also some free tools. There are some checklists they can download. There’s a research guide. If you are really into all the academic research behind it, you can read much more about it there. It’s basically just a little bit of a sampler to give you a sense of whether it might be an idea to grab hold of the book.
Denver: The book again is What’s Your Problem? To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve. When you read the book, you’ll find that this is not difficult to learn, doesn’t take an enormous amount of time to do, but makes a real difference in the way you solve problems. That sounds like a very, very nice formula. Thanks, Thomas, for being here today. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Thomas: Thanks so much, Denver, and goodbye from, in my case, Denmark. I hope everybody’s, well, have been enjoying themselves. I have.
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