Framing and Re-framing:
Core Skills for a Problem-filled World
body of literature on Design Thinking enTHE RAPIDLY-GROWING courages practitioners to engage in a path of activities involving some version of IDEO CEO Tim Brown’s ‘inspiration/ideation/ implementation’ model. Little of the literature, however, focuses explicitly on what we consider to be the core underlying benefit of the approach: an enhanced capacity to frame and re-frame the problem to be solved.
The more linear and analytic processes to which we’ve become accustomed through quality management and Six Sigma training rarely open up the number of different frames that the more exploratory approaches of Design Thinking can. Suppose, for example, that I asked you to build me a bridge. The problem solver in you might jump right in, asking how far it is across the river, what sits on either side, and which type of bridge (cantilever, suspension, etc.) would work best.
In the Design Thinking world, you would first step back and ask, Why do you need this bridge? Suppose I say that people need it to get to the other side of the river. Now your mind bursts with a new set of alternatives: a boat, a tunnel, a wetsuit, a zipline. And, if you ask why again, you might find that I want to get a message to the other side. Suddenly that large investment you might have made in a bridge can be significantly reduced by instead facilitating my sending an email, floating a message in a bottle, yelling through a megaphone, and so on. LESSON 1: Sometimes we need many different frames around a problem in order to see the many different possible solutions.
The capacity to re-frame problems distinguishes Design Thinking from its analytical problem-solving counterparts.
Understanding the ‘why’ that sits beneath a stated problem can lead you to a wide range of other options for solving it. Rootcause analysis, or the asking of the ‘five whys’, from Quality Management, also helps to identify a broader range of potential frames for a problem. But Design Thinking takes re-framing a step further.
Suppose you are working on a problem that simply cannot be solved as it is currently framed. Shure, the microphone company, recognized the catastrophic hearing loss that its rock-star customers were experiencing as a result of the on-stage ‘wedge’ speakers that were throwing deafening sound back at them. It