Problem Framing Unlocked

New to Problem Framing? This article will tell you everything you need to know about Problem Framing and when to run (or not) a Problem Framing workshop with key decision-makers.

John and Dana Vetan — Design Sprint Academy co-founders


Problem Framing is a design thinking method used to understand, define and prioritize complex business problems. Whatever outcomes you aim for, it will help you and your team make better decisions faster.

WHAT does it mean to frame a problem?

Today’s business problems are increasingly more complex, and that makes it more difficult to clearly articulate and define them. When there is ambiguity and the right answer is not obvious, framing helps to structure the thinking about a problem. Framing is, in the end, a visual aid that helps us to see things in a specific light.

WHEN should you consider problem framing?

The thing we forget about business is that it is complex and messy. In business, the context changes, new players join the game, the game rules evolve, and the strategies that worked in the past might be obsolete in the present. To navigate through complexity and mess, we need a different mindset than business as usual. We need to look at both the forest and the trees simultaneously; we need to change perspectives and flip the point of view, and we need our busy stakeholders to drop their agendas and do the same.

Problem Framing applies to multiple scenarios, but it’s most helpful when:

  • the business problem you are trying to solve is not clearly articulated;
  • traditional problem-solving approaches do not work or make the situation even worse;
  • you want to change direction but are not sure how or where to go;
  • you want to discover and define new business opportunities;
  • you have multiple stakeholders and are experiencing discord or lack of progress.

WHY should you frame a problem?

Spending time defining a problem can increase the likelihood of successful outcomes and pay dividends in the long run. Finding the right problems and asking the correct questions is as important as solving them. There is no point in searching for the right answer to the wrong question.

Framing a problem can also help determine:

  • The scope of your project or initiative. Simple problems are straightforward and require simple, linear solutions. Complex and wicked problems, on the other hand, are harder to solve, and often to define.. Identifying the type of problem you are dealing with right from the start will help you better scope the purpose and effort of what you are doing.
  • The engagement level of your team and stakeholders. Maybe you want to get a micromanaging boss to give you enough space to pursue an innovation initiative, or help your team gain more clarity and collaborate better,e, or you need to get buy-in from your stakeholders. By framing the problem in the right way, you can align disconnected stakeholders to support your initiative.
  • The value of the outcomes. When we extend the decision frame beyond the obvious options and criteria, we allow for “out of the box” thinking and increase the chances for innovative ideas to emerge.

PRO TIP ⚡️ Check out our Mini Problem Framing workshop article if you are looking to scope a project or decide if you want to tackle a new business opportunity.

Why do teams AVOID Problem Framing?

Experience tells us that the better we understand the problem space and its root causes, the easier and faster the problem-solving part will be. However, experience has also shown us that most people skim through problem framing and jump straight to solutions.

There are different reasons why most of us resist taking the time to frame a problem properly:

  • “We already know what the problem is.” — in most cases, teams just want to eliminate the “symptom” or the obvious pain point.
  • “It’s uncomfortable.” — understanding the root cause of a problem and spending a lot of time in an ambiguous space is unpleasant; it requires discipline, and we’re not trained to do that. We’re trained to solve a problem as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
  • “It’s hard work, and it takes time.” — finding insights and perspectives that make us look at the same issue in a different light is exhausting and extremely difficult. We have to question our own beliefs and be willing to listen to the “other side.”

WHO should be involved in problem framing?

  1. Decision-makers. Since problem framing is a strategic conversation that would most of the time end in a decision or a clear focus, it’s key to have business leaders, executives, people with influence and authority at the table. Their expertise and panoramic awareness of the company, industry, and business context, will help provide a broader frame and keep the focus on the company’s larger goals.
  2. Input from experts on the problem & people who experience the pain. Although your team will be made up of decision-makers, it is crucial to include input from or ideally collaborate with the people whose problem you’re solving and the experts you’ll be working with to solve it. This way, you’ll create the opportunity for insights to emerge, discover the root causes of a problem, and essentially find out what matters for everyone.

Just to give you an example, a couple of years ago, we had a project with a large manufacturing company that wanted to launch a new product in 20 countries. By the time we started working together, they had already launched the product in 4 countries and realized the process wasn’t going as smooth and seamless as they hoped. So they wanted to make sure that product launches in the remaining 16 countries will go a lot better and set themselves up for success.

This type of challenge needs framing as it is very broad and fuzzy, and multiple assumptions can be made, but most importantly, it needs to be framed by the right people.

So, how did we put together the problem framing team in this case? Using stakeholder mapping and conducting a few stakeholder interviews, the following roles appeared to be critical for making the necessary decisions:

  • Senior VP of Sales — (and main decision-maker)
  • Commercial Systems Manager
  • Head of People and Culture
  • IT Program Manager
  • Director of Finance and Planning EU
  • Manager Budgeting and Reporting EU
  • Head of Procurement Center EU

It’s obvious this team had a high level of authority and decision-making power, which was needed to decide and implement a specific course of action. Also, they brought to the discussion very different points of view, from the organizational culture to budgeting and reporting perspective; from sales and commercial systems to IT infrastructure; and so on. All these different perspectives helped the team build a “common ground,” allowing them to address this complex challenge from different angles.

But their diverse expertise was not enough to ensure they could make the best decisions to devise a solid worldwide product launch strategy. We also needed to include the input from the people directly impacted by the problem and those who can actually solve the problem. So, we did. Since this product had already been launched in 4 countries, we could collect feedback, lessons learned, and insights from the different departments and business units involved in the process. We converted this input into easy-to-read, color-coded information cards that we shared with our decision-makers during the Problem Framing workshop. By exposing decision-makers to concrete, raw data and creating the space for them to draw on firsthand experiences, we opened up the problem space and allowed for powerful insights to emerge.

Decision-makers synthesizing research data

What are the problem Framing steps?

Problem Framing is more of an intuitive process than a scientific one, and there are multiple ways you can frame a problem. That’s why you will very often hear “It depends…”.

After facilitating dozens of problem framing workshops with teams of executives all over the globe, we recommend these four steps that we always include during the problem framing process:

1. Contextualize the Problem

When trying to frame complex problems, context is king. Complex and wicked problems are context-dependent, meaning that to be able to understand them, you’ll need to see the system and how everything connects.

2. Justify the business need

When scoping a project, understanding what stakeholders want and their priorities, what they are trying to achieve is essential when aligning on the core strategy.

3. Understand the customer

Stakeholders also need to get clear on whom they are creating value for, who will benefit from the final outcome, and how this will help the business in the long run. But, for stakeholders to build empathy and truly understand their customers, they’ll need to interact with the research, understand the raw data, and draw their own conclusions.

4. Find the opportunity and commit

Once stakeholders can connect the customer’s problems to the business goals/strategy, it becomes easier to decide of the core opportunities worth pursuing

Problem Framing Steps — Design Sprint Academy

PRO TIP ⚡️ Learn all the ins and outs of facilitating a Problem Framing workshop with your team by joining our Bootcamp in Berlin or our live-online courses.

What tools help decision-makers frame problems?

There are many tools and methods to help frame a problem and guide stakeholders towards better decisions. But, when dealing with ambiguity, complex or wicked problems, there are a few things you need to be mindful of:

  • there’s no one single best framework or one-size-fits-all
  • be ready to change your tools or the way you had framed a problem as conversations progress and new insights emerge
  • be clear about your outcomes and what you are trying to achieve, and adapt your frameworks and tools to match that goal.

In our consulting projects at Design Sprint Academy, we rely on a variety of tools and frameworks and mix and match them based on the outcomes we want to achieve together with the leadership teams we work with.

A while ago, we worked with a manufacturer in the automotive industry that reached out to us to facilitate a problem framing workshop for their executive team and then run a design sprint workshop to find solutions to their business problem. When they presented their challenge: “How might we reduce the product development cycle and the go-to-market process from 10+ years to less?” we knew we were dealing with a complex problem that needed framing.

As consultants we had to define our goals and questions we had to answer in order to structure a problem framing approach:

  • What is the ideal outcome of our client team?
  • What frames can we use to visualize the entire context of the problem?
  • How can we include the input of those directly experiencing the pain?
  • How can we include the input of those with expertise in solving the problem?
  • What matters to each stakeholder, and what will trigger them to become invested?
  • How will they be interacting and collaborating?
  • What behaviors do they need to display, and what kind of conversations do they need to have (or not)?
  • How will they visualize everything and then align on the areas of opportunity?

With these questions in mind, we started looking for frameworks and tools to help us set the proper context for these conversations.

As part of the groundwork, we did internal research by interviewing different stakeholders from the manufacturing company to understand their product development lifecycle, all the players involved, and their dependencies. We looked at historical product development life cycles, some that were very successful (they took less than seven years), others that were lagging (over 11+ years) or considered to be very challenging. We took all the learnings and insights from our groundwork into a single chronological diagram that we collaboratively built remotely by using tools like Mural. We now had a good visualization of how a long 10-year plus product development cycle looks like, and we were ready to expose the executive team to this broader picture. As our Problem Framing workshop was in-person, we printed a large Product Development Lifecycle Map, put it on a wall, and used it to set the stage for the conversations and decisions.

How we introduced the Product Development Lifecycle Map to the team

Moving into the Problem Framing workshop itself, we started the day by building the common ground and extracting everyone’s opinions around the challenge using three strategic questions:

  • What have we tried in the past?
  • What were some barriers?
  • What were some success factors?

Everyone shared their knowledge and got to learn new things from areas of the business they were not even familiar with.

We then did together a stakeholder mapping activity where we answered questions like:

  • Who are all the external stakeholders involved?
  • Who can influence the product development cycle or the go-to-market process?

And then, we plotted these stakeholders on a 2x2 matrix, where each axis represented a decision criterion, in our case, Impact and Level of collaboration. The outcome of this activity was a group consensus on the most important external stakeholders that can impact the product development cycle.

It was now time to invite the team to review and understand the findings from the Product Life Cycle Development Map. Everyone spent time reviewing all the phases and steps of the process while discussing and clarifying the fuzzy areas as a group. The goal of this activity was to immerse everyone in the details of the experience and help them identify key problem areas and challenges at each step. The outcome of this activity was to surface problem areas and focus the team on the parts of the process that need to be improved. Each problem equals an opportunity.

Uncovering Pain Points is an internal-oriented frame, and because we wanted the team to define their priorities in the broader business context, we also run a SWOT analysis for each significant step of the diagram. With the help of the SWOT method, the team was able to also highlight threats and opportunities, making their decision-making process more focused and their opinions more aligned.

Product Development Lifecycle Map + Pain Points + SWOT

Up to this point, the executive team had shared information about barriers and success factors, had identified the most important and influential stakeholders that needed to be placed at the center of the problem, had aligned on the most critical pain points and visualized all opportunities in the current business context.

It was finally time to prioritize the different areas of opportunity and pick the first challenge to solve. To reach this outcome, we used a method called HMWs — How Might We — to shift the attention from the current state to the future state, and then prioritized the HMWs on a 2x2 Impact/Effort matrix. Using a democratic voting system, the leadership team decided on the most crucial HMW, which later became the design sprint challenge, ready to be tackled by the problem-solving team.

PRO TIP⚡️ Gain access to more case studies and real-life projects by joining our Bootcamp in Berlin or our live-online courses.

As you could notice, in this 1-day Problem Framing workshop, we shifted multiple frames (Pozitive-Negative Frame, People Frame, Product-Planning Frame, Narrow-Broad Frame) and used a variety of tools:

  • Product development lifecycle map
  • Stakeholder mapping
  • 2x2 matrix
  • SWOT
  • HMWs

But there is a multitude of other methods and tools you could use based on your desired outcomes, like:

  • The 4 WHYs
  • Problem Statements
  • The Reframing Matrix
  • Service Blueprints
  • Customer Journey Maps
  • Spacial Maps and Ecosystem Maps
  • Experience Maps
  • The Fishbone diagram
  • Jobs to be Done
  • Etc.

You can also find more tools and inspiring mapping methods in Jim Kalbach’s book: Mapping Experiences.

As for the different design thinking methods mentioned above, you can check out the Design Thinking Process and Methods by Robert Curedale, which presents a large collection of exercises and tools.

All you need to do is to embrace a creative mindset and think of the outcomes you want to achieve.

Remember, these tools are just the means to an end!

PRO TIP ⚡️ If you have a business question and need your team of stakeholders to help you identify the target audience and define the problem statement, download our FREE Problem Statement Template, available in Mural and MIRO.

Want to learn more about HOW TO RUN A PROBLEM FRAMING WORKSHOP and empower innovation champions within your organization? Take a look at our Corporate Training Programs.

In the meantime, you can learn directly from Design Sprint Academy’s clients, how they moved from theory to practice and embedded Problem Framing as a tool for better decision-making, alignment, and innovation.

A special thanks to John Vetan for his help with editing and contribution to this article.




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