Albert Einstein’s problem-solving technique (easy version)

The first step is making sure you’re solving the right problem.

by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg
Last Updated: 15 Apr 2020

We’ll start with a question. Answer it for your team, your workplace, your society, your family, or yourself: 

How much do we waste—time, money, energy, even lives—by solving the wrong problems? 

What difference might it make to your life—to the people and the causes you care about—if everyone got just a little bit better at barking up the right trees? 

You can do this, with the help of a very specific skill called “reframing the problem”. Here’s the central idea: The way you frame a problem determines which solutions you come up with. By shifting the way you see the problem—that is, by reframing it—you can sometimes find radically better solutions. 

Consider this classic example of the slow elevator problem. You are the owner of an office building, and your tenants are complaining about the elevator. It’s old and slow, and they have to wait a lot. Several tenants are threatening to break their leases if you don’t fix the problem. 

First of all, notice how this problem isn’t presented to you neutrally. Like most of the problems we encounter in the real world, someone has already framed it for you: the problem is that the elevator is slow. In our eagerness to find a solution, many of us don’t notice how the problem is framed; we take it for granted. As a result, we start coming up with ideas for how to make the elevator faster: Could we upgrade the motor? Could we improve the algorithm? Do we need to install a new elevator?

These solutions might work. However, if you pose this problem to building managers, they suggest a much more elegant solution: put up mirrors next to the elevator. This simple measure has proved effective in reducing complaints, because people tend to lose track of time when given something utterly fascinating to look at—namely themselves.

The mirror solution doesn’t solve the stated problem: it doesn’t make the elevator faster. Instead it proposes a different understanding.

This is what reframing is about. At the heart of the method is a counterintuitive insight: sometimes, to solve a hard problem, you have to stop looking for solutions to it. Instead, you must turn your attention to the problem itself—not just to analyse it, but to shift the way you frame it.

Step 1—Frame 

Before you can reframe a problem, you first have to frame it, giving you something to work on. Ask, “What problem are we trying to solve?” This triggers the reframing process. You might also ask “Are we solving the right problem?” or “Let’s revisit the problem for a second.”

Step 2—Reframe 

This is where you challenge your initial understanding of the problem. The aim is to rapidly uncover as many potential alternative framings as possible. You can think of it as a kind of brainstorming, only instead of ideas, you are looking for different ways to frame the problem. There are five nested strategies which can help you find these alternative framings:

-- Look outside the frame

Expert problem solvers deliberately avoid delving into the details of what’s in front of them. Instead, they mentally “zoom out” and examine the larger situation, asking questions like, What’s missing from the current problem statement? Are there elements we’re not considering? Is there anything outside the frame that we are not currently paying attention to?

-- Rethink the goal

We often think of problems as obstacles to something we want but focusing on the obstacle prevents us from questioning a more important thing: the goal. Think about some common goals: beating the competition; driving innovation; being promoted into a leadership role; even finding a partner. Goals like these are deeply entrenched in our cultural narratives and we often forget to question them. The key is to ask if we are pursuing the right goal. If not, is there something better to pursue?

-- Examine bright spots

Have you already solved the problem at least once? Consider if there was ever a time when you didn’t have the problem or when the problem was less severe. Is there anything you can learn from these bright spots? If not, can you potentially recreate the behaviors or circumstances that led to the bright spot— basically, doing more of what works?

-- Look in the mirror

One factor tends to be hidden in plain sight right inside the frame— and that’s you. When considering problems, we too often overlook our own role in the situation, as individuals or as a group. The best problem solvers don’t just embrace or accept the pain of self-reflection, they actively seek it out. Ask yourself, what is my/our role in creating this problem? 

-- Take their perspective

This strategy is about deliberately investing time in understanding other people, thus avoiding wrong judgments about them and their actions. By getting into the habit of exploring a problem from the perspective of each stakeholder, you can get better at escaping the gravity well of your own worldview. Ask yourself, what is their problem?

Step 3—Move Forward 

This closes the loop and switches you back into action mode. This can be a continuation of your current course, a move to explore some of the new framings you came up with, or both. Your key task here is to determine how you can validate the framing of your problem through real-world testing, making sure your diagnosis is correct.

The power of reframing has been known for decades, with people like Albert Einstein, Peter Drucker, and many others attesting to its importance. Combining innovation, problem solving, and asking the right questions, reframing is relevant no matter what you do, whether you’re leading a team, launching a startup, closing a sale, crafting a strategy, or dealing with a demanding customer. Everybody has problems. Reframing can help.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from What’s Your Problem?: To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve. Copyright 2020 Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg. All rights reserved.

Image credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

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