As leaders, problem solving is pretty much what we do all day, every day. But it’s also one of the skills that can be tricky. Complex problems, which are often ill-defined with multiple conflicting objectives can be daunting, which is why we developed a three-step framework to tackle such problems: frame, explore, decide—or FrED.
Framing the problem consists of clearly specifying what it is and what it isn’t. Essentially, you are answering the question, what’s my problem? Although this seems straightforward on the face of it, people often take it for granted, acting too fast. It is important to challenge yourself to check whether you are focusing on the actual pain rather than a symptom or a different problem altogether. When we challenge our assumptions of what the problem is with critical thinking, we have found that nearly all executives we work with, including ourselves, find that the frame changes from our initial thinking.
To frame the problem effectively, you need to include everything that is important and exclude everything else, which is not always easy. Too much detail at this stage can be distracting, so remember, when it comes to framing, break down your issues to make them as simple as possible. Less is more.
A fairytale solution
Think of your problem like a classic fairytale with a hero, a treasure, a dragon and a quest. The hero is the main protagonist: typically, a person or a group. The treasure is the hero’s aspiration: what they hope to achieve or get – increased profits, for instance. But if the story is any good – or the problem complex – the hero can’t just get to the treasure yet. Enter the dragon: the obstacle standing between the hero and the treasure, such as increased costs or supply chain issues. The quest brings these three key elements in a summary statement of the problem in the form, “How should [the hero] get [the treasure], given [the dragon]?” Answering that quest gives you your strategy: that is, your plan of action to solve your problem.
Remember to engage different stakeholders at this stage. Often people just discuss a problem with the top team or their project team, but engaging people with different backgrounds and points of view will help you realize if you may be mistaking the underlying issue at hand. Good frames are like captivating stories: if you frame the problem well, your audience or stakeholders will slide forward in their seat, fully engaged.
Exploring consists of giving ourselves license to look beyond the obvious solution to discover additional innovative ones. It also helps us understand what we and our stakeholders value in a solution. In this stage, you are answering how may I solve my problem? There may be many different choices of solution: part of the process is to discover or create these innovative solutions, irrespective of their desirability or feasibility.
Nobody likes having problems, which might explain why we all have a tendency to jump to solutions: the moment we realize the problem exists, we identify a solution. If we don’t pay attention, the next time we take stock of where we are might be midway through implementation, when we realize that the initially ‘obvious’ solution is far worse than other alternatives. By exploring, we give ourselves a chance to identify other ways, even seemingly ‘dumb’ ones. At this stage we aim to discover the full breadth of potential solutions. Mapping them out is a good way to stop ourselves from jumping ahead too quickly.
Deciding consists of choosing the solution that best serves our needs. In this phase, we answer, how should I solve my problem? It is important to emphasize here that complex problems do not have one objectively right answer, only better or worse ones. You are solving for trade-offs that are the most acceptable to you and your stakeholders.
You can use a simple decision matrix to help you make choices. (You can use the tool at dragonmaster.imd.org to help you structure your problem-solving process.)
Not a linear process
Although we have laid this out in a three-step process it is important to recognize that it is an iterative process, not linear. As you work your way through each step, you may discover new information. Consider this in your timing. If you only have two weeks, don’t spend one week framing and the next week exploring and deciding. Better to frame for, say, three days, and explore and decide for three more, which gives you the time to iterate a few more times, integrating the new evidence that you uncovered in the previous iterations.
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