Solutions in Search of Problems

by Marc Rounsaville on December 5, 2011

 One of the key drivers in risk management is how the problem or decision is framed or iniatialy described. First response to that statement is likely something along the order of “No joke.” A closer look will quickly reveal that the frame we put around the problem will define, to a large degree, the alternatives or range of solutions. A Google search on problem framing will yield over 35 million hits.

Antihistamines and decongestants are effective at addressing the problems of a runny nose or sinus congestion. People spend billions on these products every year. The real problem  is a cold and this  is never addressed. In this case, curing a cold is not very likely as it is caused by a virus. Preventing a cold,on the other hand, is very possible. If the “cold problem” is reframed to one of prevention, then a richer set of alternatives become available. Hand washing/sanitizing, avoiding sick people and crowds, proper rest, good diet and exercise are all practices which will reduce the incidence of colds.

Problem framing can be a difficult skill to master, one that will often require us to stop “doing” something.   Often in work situations, and certainly in emergency response operations, there is this compelling need to do something. To become proficient at problem framing, there is a shift that has to occur. This shift is that reflection, inquiry, and framing the problem effectively is doing something. A very important something, I might add.

My incident management experience frequently had me in the role of listening for the problem frame and asking the questions to ensure we weren’t missing some critical aspect of the problem. Emergency responders are trained to respond, to have a bias for action. It is easy to jump in and start doing before you figure out what to do. Many wildland fire units have a default setting of going “direct” on a fire. This means get as close as you can and keep the fire as small as possible by working right on the edge. The problem frame is simply, “Keep the fire as small as possible.”  This doesn’t leave many options. Now, think about opening the frame a bit to, “Keep the fire as small as possible while maintaining the highest degree of safety.”  If actually applied this requires some level of analysis for risk and safety. A different range of alternatives begin to emerge.

Opening the frame a little wider to, “Provide for a high level of safety and keep the fire as small as possible using the best natural control features.” Again, an even wider range of possible solutions emerge as well as the requirement to think a little more deeply about the situation. This thinking or reflecting will most likely bring more ideas to the surface. This new ideas may not have ever emerged had the responders focused strictly on physically doing something.

A major automobile manufacture known for quality and innovation has a rigorous process for framing  problems. It requires the use of a single page and multiple levels of review. Identification of individuals and groups that might have insight and will potentially be impacted by a change is embedded in the process. Reviewers and managers are trained at asking open ended questions to help ensure the frame is not overly narrow. Practioniers constantly ask themselves, peers, and others, “What are we missing?” This is a much better question than “Are we missing something?”

In 1976, Paul MacCready solved an 18 year old challenge to build a human powered airplane. There were a number of requirements about how far and how maneuverable but not much else. Teams of engineers and aviation gurus had been working to solve this problem for years and had a long history of failures. When MacCready took on the problem he realized rather quickly that the people attempting to build a machine had selected the wrong problem frame. They were all building airplanes that crashed and took a year to rebuild. Macready’s problem frame was much different. He decided to build an airplane that could be quickly rebuilt and flown again, shifting the problem frame. He realized that being able to test frequently enough to find the answer was the real problem. His different problem frame allowed him to meet the challenge in about six months.  He came to this new frame by practicing a skill he called daydreaming. I call it professional reflection.

What  challenges do you face that are ripe for some professional reflection?


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