Find solutions and drive change faster with problem framing

Creative problem solving is hard. Making decisions as a group is hard. Luckily, there’s a very simple trick that anyone can use to keep a group of people focused on a set of problems and their potential solutions. Perhaps counterintuitively, it involves structuring a workshop in a way that shuts down open-ended, unstructured discussion.

People + Discipline + Structure = Creative Solutions

But wait, no open-ended, unstructured discussion? Isn’t that what creative problem solving is all about? Weirdly, it is not. In my experience, the most creative solutions and the most clear-minded decisions have always sprung from the most disciplined, structured workshops. It’s almost as if, when the group submits itself to a rigid process, individual agendas are set aside, allowing everyone to focus their creative energies on the problems at hand.

The model we use for this at Future Foundry is called Problem Framing. It takes 1.5 hours to define a set of problems and prioritise a set of solutions to help solve them. It can be used in any situation where you have a group of people who want to define the problems they face and identify the next steps to take in solving them. We’ve used the outcomes of these workshops to improve the effectiveness of campaigns, help our clients keep up with the competition, reduce customer support enquiries, innovate new products and to simply figure out which problems within an organisation are the most valuable problems to solve right now.

The Problem Framing Workshop

All you need to carry out your own Speed Problem Framing session is a challenge topic, a space with a whiteboard, some markers, sticky notes and sticky dots for voting. Most importantly, you’ll need someone to facilitate the workshop who will both keep time and vigorously moderate discussion. That person will need to focus intently on keeping the workshop on point.


Ten steps to framing your problems:

Step one: what’s working

Everyone writes down what’s currently working well within the area under discussion. One idea per sticky note. Pray silence! Time box this for (5 minutes)

Step two: explain what’s working

Everyone takes a turn at putting each of their ideas on the whiteboard, explaining them as they go. (2 minutes each)

Step three: what’s the problem

Everyone writes down what they see as the problems, challenges, issues or concerns around the chosen topic. One idea per sticky note. No talking! (5 mins)

Step four: show the problems

Everyone puts each of their ideas on the whiteboard, keeping them separate from the positives, but this time they don’t explain them. That way, we avoid getting sidetracked by personal criticisms. (1 min each)

Step five: vote on the problems

Now everyone uses their sticky dots to vote on the problems (not the positives) that they see as most important. Everyone is free to vote on their own ideas and they can vote more than once. (3 mins)

Step six: reframe the problems

The facilitator ranks the problems in order of how many votes they got, discarding any that got no votes, or only one vote. They then reframe these problems as ‘How might we…’ statements. (3 mins)

For example, ‘I don’t understand our audiences’ might become ‘How might we gain a better understanding of our audiences?’

Step seven: ideate solutions

Now, taking each problem statement in turn, everyone comes up with as many ideas as they can for solving the problem. (5 mins per problem)

Step eight: vote on the solutions

Taking each ‘How might we’ statement in turn, everyone votes on what they think are the best potential solutions. As before, everyone can vote on their own solutions, and can vote more than once. (5 mins per problem)

Step nine: rank the solutions

The facilitator ranks the solutions for each problem, discarding those with no votes, or only one vote. (3 mins)

Step ten: prioritise the solutions

The facilitator now draws a set of axes on the whiteboard, one representing effort and another representing impact. Taking instruction from the group (but avoiding open-ended discussion) the facilitator places each potential solution onto the axes according to the effort/impact involved in implementing it.

You should end up with something that looks like this:


The result: actionable solutions, minimum discussion

What you’re left with at the end of a Problem Framing session is a set of solutions that the whole group has agreed to pursue right now (those in the ‘high-impact, low-effort’ quadrant) and a backlog of tasks and projects to investigate in the future (those in the ‘low-impact, low-effort’ and ‘high-impact, high-effort’ quadrants respectively).

You’ve also managed to do it with everyone’s input and without any of those off-topic conversations that can make your days seem about 50% longer.


If you’d like to book a 1.5-hour problem framing session with us, contact me on kjell.eldor@manifesto.co.uk

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