Business transformation Decision-making Personal growth Project management


The art of problem-solving requires the ability to think outside of what’s directly in front of us, in order to find a particular outcome or solution. Sometimes we can be too close to a project or issue to see what needs tweaking, which creates bias in our quest for a solution. What is the most efficient question we should be asking to find the winning outcome?

20 February 2023 • 4 min read

Photo by Roxy Aln on Unsplash

When starting a project, you usually (always) have a goal in mind. This is often something that is bothering you, a perceived inefficiency or a potential opportunity that can be expressed as a question you’re trying to answer. Frequently these questions are narrow and have already predetermined what the “solution” should be. This introduces an unhealthy amount of bias into your project and seriously limits both your own and your team’s ability to be creative and innovative. To encourage more innovation, we need to be surfacing and asking much more efficient questions. Starting with the right question is even more important when undertaking Social Innovation, i.e., innovation that aims to improve the lives of the currently disadvantaged, where any change to the status quo carries equal potential to help or hinder.

The problem: Am I starting with the problem? Too often innovators start with the solution or with the methods they have available rather than considering the challenge at hand.


  1. “How do we make the calendar function better?”
  2. “How are users organising their time?”
  3. “How do people plan for the future?”

This first question suggests the solution – the calendar function needs to improve. Any solution the project team develops will focus on the calendar and little else! The thing is, that might not be the whole problem.

The second question lends itself to greater exploration; you might have a hunch that there is a problem with the calendar, but if users are already finding another way of managing their time without it, then spending precious time optimising your calendar might be a waste of precious resources. What you really care about is the utility your users derive from your product – you could miss all of this with the first question.

The third question is too broad and will leave the project team listless with choice paralysis or gallivanting off down one of many potential rabbit holes. Without bounding the question to the users of a product the potential solution space is enormous. You could legitimately answer this question through a meta-analysis of productivity techniques, through a survey, focus groups, a time and motion study, quantitative analysis – the list goes on.

Selecting the “right” way to answer the question is near impossible and likely influenced by availability bias.

The difference between all three of these questions is one of autonomy. The first question provides the project team with a limited scope for autonomy. We’ve tightly bound the scope to the calendar leaving no room for the team to think creatively. Question three provides too much autonomy (yes there is such a thing!) and leaves the team with very little direction, making it difficult to evaluate the possible avenues to explore. The second question is our goldilocks question; not too much and not too little. It leaves space for autonomy with scope for the team to pursue different potential paths, but the team is clearly bound in scope by the product – any solution needs to focus on a specific target population of users.

The level at which you articulate the problem has a disproportionately large impact on the project team’s ability to generate, explore and deliver potential innovative solutions.

What if the problem you’re trying to solve isn’t neat and self-contained? This is the challenge we regularly face in the Social Innovation world. The problems we are trying to solve, like intergenerational fairness or addressing the obesity crisis, are intractable – they’re varied and overlapping and there often isn’t agreement on what the root cause is, let alone how they are best solved. The potential boundaries that we might use to provide the scope for a project team are therefore very hard to define, particularly as key stakeholders or system actors either fundamentally disagree or each hold a part of the puzzle needed to solve the problem.

One method you can use to help unearth the potential scope boundaries for these contentious and often wicked problems is problem framing. Problem framing is a process for eliciting, searching and selecting relevant perspectives that restructure one’s perception of a situation that ultimately helps you to understand it better. More simply put, problem framing is a way of understanding how other people view the problem in order to identify new and different ways of solving it.

Through problem framing we bring together the different groups of stakeholders (consumers, developers, citizens, designers etc.) to jointly explore their diverse perspectives of a problem. This is a shared journey encompassing the problems’ history, why it hasn’t been solved yet, who the main stakeholders are and what broader influencing factors play a role in shaping the problem. Together as a group your stakeholders can then identify the key emerging themes surrounding the problem and produce conditional, or if-then, statements from the perspective of each stakeholder for you to explore through your project. We call these if-then statements “problem frames”.

This process of jointly framing the problem with your stakeholders, including those affected by the problem you’re trying to address, helps to foster a holistic understanding of the problem amongst everyone. You’ll gather a better understanding of how these groups of stakeholders passively and actively interact with each other and how they each contribute to the persistence of the problem. Crucially, you’ll get plenty of problem frames which represent the wide variety of perspectives held by your stakeholders. The problem frames provide the necessary boundaries for the scope of your project, helping to achieve the necessary “Goldilocks” level of question to explore.

Business transformation Decision-making Personal growth Project management

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