Skip to content

Guideline 2: How you frame a problem matters

The framework used to introduce a novel problem may strongly influence what learners understand and how they reason about possible solutions. How you represent a problem to learners affects the what kinds of solutions they will seek. It affects the nature of a problem space.

Example: Ways of framing a problem (from IDEO – The Art of Innovation book p.57):

  • Spill-proof coffee cup lids – to narrow and assumes an answer
  • Bicycle cup holders – too dry and product focused
  • Helping bike commuters to drink coffee without spilling it or burning their tongues – GOOD framing – does not unduly limit the possible solutions


The cognitive concept of functional fixedness is about how we develop a narrow view of the objects and tools in our environment. The classic example of functional fixedness is the “candle problem” used by Duncker in a 1945 experiment (see Wikipedia). We create a tool for a specific purpose and we cannot see other purposes for the tool. Or as Marshall McLuhan observes (borrowed from Christopher D. Sessums blog.):

We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us – Marshall McLuhan

So when we encourage people to think outside the box to solve a problem, be aware of how you describe the box, and how you position all the things inside of the box.

Boxing in people – a story: I once suggested to a senior executive that our company only promotes people with MBAs or PhDs. He quickly reframed the issue and asked “Do we only promote people with advanced degrees or is there something about people who seek advanced degrees that get them promoted?” He succinctly reframed the issue from one of having the right credentials to an individual’s innate abilities, shifting the problem space from organizational issues to individual issues. Therefore, in seeking solutions, an individual looks within themselves rather than to the organization as a whole. (For the record, the answer pissed me off because I felt the shift in problem space at the time, although I could not articulate it.) As result, if one could not get promoted, it was because you could not demonstrate the abilities required — such as reframing your skills. Therefore, one becomes pigeon-holed.

How you frame a problem, and how you frame yourself, matters. Be aware of the box.

Posted in guidelines.

Tagged with , , , .

0 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.