Change Your Questions – Change Your Life: Part 5 To solve your toughest problems, change the problems you solve

Questions have incredible power in our lives. And perhaps no more so than when it comes to solving problems. 

Imagine that 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. So what do you do? 

The obvious solution is to make the elevator go faster. For example: replace the lift, install a stronger motor, or upgrade the computer that runs the lift. This is how we typically solve problems. We draw a frame around them – “The elevator is too slow” – and then we explore that frame to find solutions.

However, if you present this problem to building managers, they will suggest a much more elegant solution: Put up mirrors next to the elevator. This simple trick has proved remarkably effective in reducing complaints, because people tend to lose track of time when given something utterly fascinating to look at – namely, themselves.

This approach presents another way to solve problems: breaking the frame. The mirror doesn’t make the elevator faster – it solves a different, perhaps more fundamental problem, namely that people notice the wait. 

All problems can be solved in one of two ways: 1) exploring the frame, or 2) breaking the frame. For simple problems, exploring the frame is usually enough. But if you are stuck with a big, hairy problem with no simple solution in sight, that’s when you should consider breaking the frame. 

So how do you break the frame? I can suggest three practices that I’ve found particularly helpful:

1. Refuse to accept complex solutions

A healthy habit in problem-solving is to always think: “There must be an easier way.” Imagine if the landlord had just accepted his tenants’ complaints and face value and hired an elevator service firm to upgrade the elevator. The expense would have been enormous and might still not have solved the problem. By refusing to accept complex solutions, you open the door to simpler ones.

2. Examine the emotions behind the problem

We call something a “problem” only when it makes us experience a negative emotion. Zooming in on what that emotion is can open up doors to alternative solutions. For example, when the tenants complained about the elevator, what they said was: “The elevator is too slow.” But “too slow” is not a negative emotion. What they were really complaining about was being bored. Pinpointing that negative emotion is the clue we need to reframe the problem as: “People feel bored while waiting for the elevator.” With this problem statement, now the mirror becomes a much more obvious solution.

3. Look for the bright spots

The start of Tania and Brian Luna’s otherwise happy marriage was plagued by a recurring issue: they occasionally got into big fights about small things like cleaning, spending, or dog care. And while every couple fights sometimes, both Tania and Brian felt that their conflicts too often became needlessly bitter. What helped them solve this problem was finding a positive exception to the rule:

Tania: “One day we had a conversation over breakfast about our budget—and it was so smooth and painless. The same topic that seemed impossibly complex and upsetting at night was easy after we slept and ate. That made us pause and rethink what was going on. We soon realized what most of our arguments had in common: they were happening after ten in the evening. We didn’t fight because of our different values. We fought because we were sleepy, hungry, and therefore cranky.”

Looking for the bright spots by asking: “When or where does the problem not happen?” can be a great way to find hidden solutions.

 

Most of the problems we face can be solved by exploring our initial framing. But the next time you find yourself stuck on a tough nut and no good way out, know that you can also break the frame. And three different tools you can use to unscrew and smash that initial frame are:

  1. Refuse to accept complex solutions

  2. Examine the emotions behind the problem

  3. Look for the bright spots

Happy problem-solving! 😃


Many of the concepts and examples in this article come from the excellent work on problem-solving by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg.

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