Reframing in Design Thinking: an iterative tool to get the right answers
Learn how reframing offers different perspectives on business issues. This insightful, iterative skill ensures you find the right questions — and the right answers.
Reframing is a multipurpose iterative and problem solving skill that can be used to reposition or pivot the core problem of a project within a structured innovation process..
There’s a traditional quote in design and research methodologies that states the worst possible mistake in business is “getting the right answer to the wrong question.”
This is exactly what reframing fights, and what it’s all about: a powerful problem solving tool to ensure we’re getting to the right questions — and addressing them properly.
Read on and learn how to reframe your projects by using this game changing ability in order to rediscover the issue, and solve it better.
*Article updated on August 31, 2022.
What is Reframing?
Reframing is a powerful problem solving tool that ensures we’re getting to the right questions and addressing them properly. It’s used during the turning point of the discovery phase of any structured innovation process. That moment when you conduct interviews, in-depth research, and use techniques for data analysis to understand the context/challenges of the problem.
Here at MJV, we use it at the end of the Immersion Phase of the Design Thinking process.
Reframing involves examining the unresolved problems or issues within a company from different perspectives and several angles. This allows for the deconstruction of stakeholder beliefs and assumptions, breaking their thought patterns, to help them shift company paradigms and take the first step towards reaching innovative solutions.
A problem cannot be solved with the same type of thinking that created it, that is why reframing should be used as the first step towards generating innovative solutions. It is also useful as the initial step in the improvement of products, services and/or processes, as it allows for approaching the issue with new perspectives.
A practical example of reframing: the slow elevator problem
Imagine a hypothetical situation where you are responsible for the maintenance of elevators in a building and need to act to respond to the following complaint:
“The elevators are too slow.“
The most obvious answers for a possible solution range from:
Installing a new lift. Updgrading the motor. Improving the algorithm.
“These suggestions fall into what we call a solution space: a cluster of solutions that share assumptions about what the problem is” – says HBR.
The question is: do they really address the problem?
Now, let’s suppose that you, as a competent professional in charge of the problem, keep the elevator maintenance up to date. In this context, installing a new lift in place of a working one makes no sense.
The engine power also does not seem to be the problem, as it would result in its non-functioning (total or partial).
Finally, if the algorithm were broken, we would have a few dozen people imprisoned on their floors, as the elevator would go round and round and never get there.
We need to reframe the problem to discover what is really annoying people. And it’s related with velocity.
The issue isn’t that the elevators are too slow. It’s that people feel that the elevators are too slow. And people get bored. Something as simple as adding a mirror won’t make the elevators faster, but you’ll start seeing less complaints of slow elevators.
This reframing is quite interesting because it’s not a solution to the stated problem. It focuses on what really annoys people: waiting. In every situation, not just inside elevators or waiting for them.
“Note that the initial framing of the problem is not necessarily wrong. Installing a new lift would probably work” – HBR.
But would it be cheaper, more practical and faster? This is the turning point.
This example first appeared in the book “Systems, Organizations, and Interdisciplinary Research,” General Systems, vol. V (1960), by Russell L. Ackoff. It later became part of the articles in the 2017 Harvard Business Review records.
How to apply it?
The process takes place in 3 different cycles: capture, transformation and preparation, which repeat themselves until the objective – stimulating those involved to see the problems under different optics – is reached, creating a new understanding of the context that leads to the identification of innovative paths.
Usually the project team acts as enablers in a process that can last from several weeks to a single workshop. The important thing is that meetings are carried out with the actors, who will be probed with little tasks that encourage new thought patterns.
The Reframing Cycles
This is the collection of data on the raison d’etre of the product/service/company in relation to the beliefs and suppositions of the interlocutor that will be used during the transformation stage.
This cycle usually takes place during meetings or get-togethers with the actors involved in the process who, usually, are questioned (interviewed) about innovation, but can also be instigated into performing exercises involving analogy, acting or other dynamic activities that aim to reveal another perspective on the issue.
With this data in hand, the transformation is performed by the project team, that is responsible for mapping the data collected during the previous stage and adding new perspectives. During this stage, several techniques, such as mental maps, journey, negation etc., can be applied according to the objective, client type and moment of the process.
The preparation is the moment when impact sensitivity materials are created, based on the results from the transformation stage, that stimulate the interlocutor to reflect. Often, issues are raised that are not made clear and tools are developed/chosen for the next cycle (return to capture).
4 points for the success of the reframing process:
• Provide a relaxed environment, where the client is invited to unwind and rethink their work.
• Create speeches that are confrontational and emotional, filled with examples of real stories, to facilitate the understanding of what is being proposed.
• Offer, at the end of each session, material that allows the client to pass along (inside and outside the company) what he has experienced and learned in the Generating Sessions.
• Select a facilitator that can provoke the client, provide a new understanding of the initial issues and transform an unsure future into something plausible.
Reframing is still essential
MJV applies this technique in most of their projects. This happens because the external viewpoint, which is more impartial and free of pre-conceptions on the problems, allied to an in-depth investigation of the challenges and diverse opinions, creates a different perspective of the possible paths towards the solution.
Oftentimes, the stakeholders believe that the greatest challenge is external, when in fact it comes from within, from the company’s culture. Other times, it’s the other way around. This being the case, through fast prototyping and testing of new solutions of Design Thinking, it’s possible to find new nuances for innovation in a very agile way.
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