Insights & Process

The paradox between the value of spending time in unpacking challenges and the urge to jump into solutions ‘to get things done’

Pauliina Mattila, Tiina Tuulos, Amelia Iverson & Floris van der Marel, DFM Workshop Team

20 May 2020

The ability to unpack and scope problems is essential to creating innovative solutions and outcomes. However, there is a tension between the value of spending time in unpacking challenges and pressures of having immediate answers and providing solutions quickly. This thought piece outlines some of this tension and shares our key insights on how and why we should focus on unpacking challenges and flipping them into opportunities to drive action.

From childhood we are strongly encouraged to be solution minded and provide answers. However, research shows that this is a significant issue. Not spending time on challenges to understand them well incurs significant costs to businesses and furthermore business tend to do underperform in that. That is, organisations lack capability in daily problem unpacking and framing (Wedell-Wedellsborg, 2017). We often don’t designate time for unpacking problems and when diving straight into solutions, we make several assumptions about the problem and end up putting a lot of resources into solving something that might not be the right thing, or a proposed solution may be costly and too complex compared to the value gained.

This tension, yet evident need to have skills to unpack and frame problems in a meaningful way, was something we at DFM wanted to further explore. What intrigued us was to enhance our ability to frame and unpack challenges in corridor conversations and in meetings on a daily basis. We wanted to put together a set of tools and frameworks that help us to unpack challenges we face in our professional context and frame them in a way that drives better solutions in the short term and long term. Seeing your challenges in a new light can result in radical improvements. We believe innovation is everyone’s right and responsibility, and we need to empower people across the whole organisations so that the skill of identifying and solving better problems has a wider impact. Design Thinking and other problem-solving processes do have their place in solving wicked problems, giving overarching frameworks for and driving larger projects and keeping teams coordinated in their efforts, but based on our experience and insights from theory, we identified that there may be an appetite for a simplistic approach to frame challenges in everyday work. 

“If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution.”
– Steve Jobs

Feeling inspired by this challenge, we created an approach to unpack and reframe problems and ran a pilot workshop to test how it may work for a large variety of challenges. Prior to the session the participants were asked to identify 5 challenges that they are currently facing in their work. In a short 90min session and through a range of activities, the participants mapped their challenges, unpacked them by identifying underlying issues behind the challenges and widening their perspective of the problem space and by inviting external viewpoint to generate questions related to the problem. They finished by doing an acid test to make sure the challenge was framed in a way that enables meaningful solutions and corresponding actionable steps towards improvement. Participants shared how “after re-framing I now have some clear steps to take in my control” and “seeking feedback from others helps to gain a different perspective” showcases how they were able to shift their thinking and see a challenge in a different light.

We’d love to share some of this work and below are a few simple tips how you can integrate unpacking challenges and reframing them in your daily work.

  1. Explore the underlying issues: Often what you face is only a surface level issue of something bigger. Explore what some of the underlying issues are related to your challenge. A simplistic way to do so is to ask the question ‘why’. 5 Whys is an established root cause analysis method and a way to do is to repeat the question why until you reach to a root cause of the challenge. Ideally you want to focus on solving the root cause, however, if it is something that is beyond your control to solve, pick the level that you can have influence on.
  2. Find an external viewpoint: It is indeed challenging to see your own challenge from a fresh perspective. A relatively simple method to do so is to ask someone else to look at your challenge. Someone who possibly understands the context but isn’t invested in your challenge can provide unexpected viewpoints. You might think of someone from another department or field in your organisation who feels comfortable to speak freely. The aim is not to suggest solutions, but instead, to seek for input and encourage the other person to provide a fresh viewpoint and generate more questions related to your challenge. A good tip is to avoid describing why you think the challenge exists so that you don’t influence the other person’s viewpoint too much. ”By definition, outsiders are not experts on the situation and thus will rarely be able to solve the problem […] They are there to stimulate the problem owners to think differently.” (Wedell-Wedellsborg, 2017). A method to do this step is to briefly explain your challenge to your chosen colleague and ask them to brainstorm 10 questions related to your challenge.
  3. Final cross-check of whether your reframed challenge is ready for coming up with relevant ideas: First of all, frame it into a question instead of a statement. This sets your mind into thinking about solutions and opens up new opportunities. Then ask yourself:
    1. Do you have control over implementing solutions to your challenge? If not, then reframe it in a way that makes you more empowered to create change.
    2. Do you feel positive about the possible change? If not, reframe again so that you become more excited. Motivation is a fuel that takes you a long way.
    3. Is your challenge actionable, does your question spark ideas? If not, reframe once more so that you know where to start. The value lies in the combination of ideas and actions.

Finally, reframing and unpacking challenges should be quick and iterative. Think of it as your “cognitive counterpoint to rapid prototyping” (Wedell-Wedellsborg, 2017). And when thinking about your challenges like rapid prototyping, the same principles apply; bias towards action, experiment to think, test and learn by doing.

Wedell-Wedellsborg, T. (2017). Are you solving the right problems? Harvard Business Review95(1), 76-83.

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