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Reframing, innovation and problem solving with Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg

How do you solve problems? Are you even trying to solve the actual problem that needs solving? Today’s guest is so good at solving problems they named him twice, Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg. 

Thomas has developed a theory of problem-solving, but that’s not what he talks about in this latest episode. 

No, in this conversation, he talks about how you can deliberately spend time stepping away from the problem in order to look at it differently, how can you reframe the problem, and then how can you come up with a different solution to solving the problem, before moving on. 

Thomas spent 7 years studying innovation, and it was then he realised that the more things didn’t work, it wasn’t that people weren’t innovating correctly, they were solving the wrong problem. This is all discussed in his book – What’s Your Problem? (link below). 

The problem we have when we’re trying to solve problems is that we get solution blindness – we get so emotionally attached to something that we can’t see the solution, like a sort of learned behaviour. One of the tips Thomas shares is looking for ‘bright spots’, i.e. was there a time when there wasn’t a problem? And can we use that to find our way to a solution? 

From how he got into problem-solving, identifying if we’re solving the right problem, the process that he uses to solve a problem, and why he brings in outside help the more important the problem is. This is an absolutely fascinating conversation with Thomas, we hope you enjoy it as much as we did. 

On today’s podcast:

  • The theory of problem-solving
  • The slow elevator problem
  • Framing, reframing, moving forward
  • The bright spots method
  • Thinking outside the frame

Links:

Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg is a Harvard Business Press author and a globally recognised expert on reframing, innovation, and problem solving. In today’s episode he asks the question – are you solving the right problem?

When he’s not writing books on problem solving, he’s researching or teaching his problem solving method to companies. But how did he get into problem solving in the first place? 

“The truth is that I tried to build a startup and failed at it gloriously through my own mistakes, and then started working with an old professor of mine on innovation. And that was fun.”

It was through his work on innovation that he realised that people are really bad at solving the right problems. 

The slow elevator problem

“I always like to use the example called the slow elevator problem. And what that does is really to highlight the difference between analysing a problem and then framing.”

The gist is, you own an office building and people complain about the speed of the lift. If you don’t fix the lift, they’re going to break leases. Most people take the problem for granted and try to speed up the elevator or they might try to understand the problem better by asking – why is the elevator slow. But that’s not the question to start with, says Thomas. 

“There’s this high level skill called framing the problem, which is asking the question: what problems should we actually be focused on here? And is the speed of the elevator necessarily the right thing to to focus on?”

The slow elevator example works so well because it captures the core idea that most people jump straight into solving what they think is the problem. When what they need to do is analyse the problem first. 

“But the skill that most people don’t master is to ask, wait, are we actually analysing the right problem to start with? That is framing. Is the problem framed correctly? Are we solving the right problems?”

The habit you should get into, says Thomas, is to say, I have a problem, and instead of jumping straight into solution mode, spend some time making sure you’re trying to fix the right problem.

The process

At its simplest level, says Thomas, the process he uses to problem solve is three steps: frame, reframe, and move forward. 

What does that mean? 

Frame – when you have a problem, state the problem separately from the solution. Just put the problem on the table.

Reframe – spend at least five minutes trying to come up with different perspectives on the problem. Try to challenge your framing on it. This is best done with a couple of other people if you can, or just one other person who can help you see your blind spots. 

Move forward – at the end of that, you need to figure out how to move forward. Because the big danger of thinking too much is that you get stuck in paralysis by analysis. 

“It’s Monday morning, the customer has put a problem on the table. And you spend a little bit of time just making sure that that problem is really what you should be focused on compared to what else might be going on.”

Essentially, get into the practice of saying, I have a problem. What is the problem, share it with a couple of other people who tried to challenge your understanding of it, and then figure out how to move forward.  

The bright spots method

This simple solution involves asking – when did people not complain? By looking at the positives, you might realise when the problem doesn’t exist, which may lead you to solving the problem when it does crop up. 

“That’s a favourite method of mine, because it forces you to get out of your negative headspace. Like when we talk about problems, we’re in a space where things are going wrong. And the bright spots question where the positive is.”

Think outside the frame

The other method of problem solving Thomas likes is thinking outside the frame, meaning, try to understand how this problem is framed, and what is missing from that framing?

“There’s a good chance that the problem you have first defined, there’s something that’s not included in that definition or statement that you actually need to consider or think about.”

For business owners wondering how to use this method of problem solving in their business, think about your product from your client’s point of view. What do they actually care about? How does the product solve their problem? 

“If you’re analysing a technically different difficult problem, you need people who are similar to you in the sense that they understand your problem as well. But if you’re trying to figure out whether it’s framed correctly, it actually helps to have somebody who’s further away from it, because weirdly enough, we can be too close to our own problems to see them clearly.”

Book recommendations

The Price of Peace – John Maynard Keynes

Decisive – Chip and Dan Heath

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